How I Research Part I: Reading

No murdered potatoes this time! Only the beautiful flying buttress of Notre Dame Cathedral.

An Approach to Research

I love research. I research so I can write, but I also write so I have an excuse to do research, and to focus my research. I think all novels need some research, but some do need more than others, and historical fiction needs a lot.

When writing historical fiction, it’s important for me to feel very comfortable in the period I’m writing about, to be able to visit it in my mind at will. I do think my lifelong obsession with earlier historical eras is helpful here–when I was in elementary school I was obsessed with the Little House books and tried to live as much like Laura Ingalls Wilder as possible. Hopefully if you are interested in writing historical fiction you also spend a lot of time imagining what it would be like to live in a different era. It’s helpful practice, and it makes the research process that much more enjoyable. One of the amazing things about visiting Notre Dame in Paris for the first time was not just seeing it, but imagining a medieval French peasant seeing it for the first time, going from a rough one room house that they probably shared with their livestock to seeing a church that is still impressive to modern eyes.

Still, imagination can only take us so far. So, while I was writing The Half-Drowned King, I was also always reading a book about Viking Age Scandinavia, or Dark Ages Archaeology, or an Icelandic Saga, or something that would let me understand more about the era. While I want to get details right, I also want to get the feel of the era right, and this research helps me get my head into the era when I’m writing about it.

The nice thing about writing historical fiction instead of a history book is that I’m interested in what is plausible, not what is provable. I want to get as much right as possible, but I do not expect an academic specialist in my time period to be fully satisfied. If they have spent their lifetime studying it, they certainly know more about it than I will even from years of research. And even if it were possible for me to know as much as they do, they have spent so long thinking about it, they probably have a very clear idea of how they picture the era and the people in it–which may be no more or less correct than mine, but is solid enough that whatever I write has a good chance of ringing false.

Where to Begin

A reader asked me on twitter about how I research. He is specifically researching early christian communities. Since that’s an era I find fascinating, although I don’t have any plans to write a novel set then, I’ll use it as an example. If it were me, starting from scratch, I would literally begin by Googling “Early Christianity”.

In the first five links, I find:

  • A Wikipedia article about Early Christianity:
  • A Wikipedia article about the History of Early Christianity: (why two? I don’t know)
  • A PBS page about the diversity of Early Christianity:

I would read the Wikipedia pages and follow all of the citations.

The PBS page has various professors listed–I would look for other books written by those professors. At this stage I would only be trying to get more context, to develop a familiarity with the era.

How to Broaden the Research

If you’re coming to research with a specific novel idea that opens up more ideas for research, particulars about the characters and problems you are tackling. In general, for learning about a place and an era, I would try to make sure I covered:

  • Daily life in the era
  • Life for women (hopefully but not always covered in daily life sources)
  • Are there any primary sources, i.e. sources written at the actual time and place? These are so important for understanding people’s way of thinking
  • The time’s social mores, laws, religions, politics, and conflicts
  • Local factions. Early Christianity had many splinter groups, and Judaism, paganism, and various other religions competed with it. Not only that, but almost no place is entirely homogeneous–what different ethnicities, nationalities, classes, etc. are present in my time and place?
  • What is the history of my time and place? Every era is informed by what came before it, so understanding the backgrounds of newly minted Christians would be helpful

I find these resources by reading books and following citations. It’s incredibly helpful to have access to a good library. In New York City, I have both the New York Public Library system and I pay to have access to NYU’s library. I definitely recommend looking into ways to access university collections. So many books are digitized these days you can even use a university’s collection if you’re not local.

Researching and the Writing Process

There is writing advice out there that says, “Do as little research as you can get away with”. And I agree with that, but with the emphasis on “as you can get away with”–the main point being, don’t let research get in the way of writing, and don’t use research as a procrastination tool, but don’t get big things wrong, and try not to get little things wrong either. (Ask me if I’m still bitter about the Viking novel I read that had characters consuming maple syrup and tea. Spoiler: I am.) I like to begin writing as soon as I can, and continue researching while I write. As I’m writing, if I run into something minor that I’d like to research, I leave a note to myself in the draft and come back to it later. Things that I can research later if I need something specific:

  • What flora and fauna is present in my era
  • What foods are available
  • Very specific dates
  • Place names, historical figure names

I do like to get those things right, but I don’t always need to get them right in the moment of writing my rough draft.

A Note on Notes

I record all of the books I read because I like to be able to cite them in articles and in my Author’s Note, but I don’t take very detailed notes. I read the books I want to read, and jot down things that might help with plotting, characterization, setting–anything that sparks an idea for my novel–but mostly I read to create the milieu in my mind so it is ready and there without too much conscious thought while I’m writing. I know a lot of writers don’t work that way, but that’s what works for me.

I keep notes from books in Evernote, and make lists of things I want to research in the future. I have an idea for a novel or trilogy set in medieval England, and I have long lists of individuals, social movements, religious movements, wars, and literature that I need to research for it. At the beginning of this process, every bit of research leads to more.

Next week I will talk about research through means other than reading.

Please let me know if you have questions!

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How to choose what to write

I woke up this morning with the very strong idea that I should illustrate this post with a picture of potatoes. IDK why, but here we are.

Note 1: The Sea Queen is now available for pre-Order on Amazon! It comes out August 14, 2018. I can’t wait until I can share the cover with you, because it is stunning.

Note 2: Going forward, I plan to update the blog every Tuesday, at least, to give myself a little more structure here.

Now onto the post! A friend asked:

“How to choose what to write a book on for those who want to write but don’t know where to start: is it just keeping a journal of ideas? Picking a few topics and starting to do more extensive research? Basically, where to even start.”

Excellent question, and one of the hardest ones for a writer to answer. One of the nice things about selling a trilogy is that I know what I’m writing at least until I’m done with Book 3.

A while ago I read a post on Medium or Lifehacker about how to find your passion (or dream job, or calling), and the upshot was that it’s probably it’s something you’re already doing. I was always a passionate reader, and frequent writer of diaries, stories, Livejournal posts, even before I started getting serious about fiction. I was always obsessed with early medieval history, the moments when history and legend blur, Norse mythology, Scandinavia, cold places. It makes sense, looking back, that the story I was able to finish would be about Vikings. It still required a great deal of work and research, but since I was already very interested in it, spending the time writing and researching it felt worthwhile for its own sake.

When it comes time to pick the next project, well, I have a bunch of ideas, some of which are mostly written, and some of which need a lot more development. I plan to re-assess them all and work with my agent to help figure out what makes the most sense to write next, but no matter what she says, it needs to be something I feel like I can write and finish.

I get ideas all the time, but few that I come back to and work on, at least mentally, even when I’m in the middle of other projects. When an idea keeps coming back to me, that’s when I know it’s worth pursuing, worth putting a bit of research into, and seeing where it goes.

Not everyone works that way–I have writer friends who need their ideas to be fresh, and who have to pounce on them before they get stale. But I find that if an idea sticks with me for a long time, it’s more worthwhile to develop further.

So if you’re thinking of getting serious about writing for the first time, I would recommend trying an exercise like this:

  1. Make a list of all the ideas that currently call to you
  2. Rank them by what you keep coming back to, fantasizing about, etc.
  3. Can any of them be combined? Sometimes two partial ideas could be two parts of one idea. Don’t be afraid of using up all your ideas at once. More will come.
  4. Try writing a synopsis of your top 3-4 ideas–and don’t worry if the synopsis silly. No one is going to read it besides you. Still, try writing at least a paragraph and up to a few pages, about the characters, plot, and ending. If you’re not writing fiction, the question might be what aspects of the subject do you want to cover.
  5. Do you have an ending in mind for any of these ideas? I have learned through sad trial and error not to start a book or story without knowing what the ending is going to be. It may change along the way, but I need something to write toward. For a non-fiction project this might be: what do you want people to take away from the book?
  6. Try listing some scenes or passages from some of them that you are excited to write. If you can’t think of any, it may not be the right project for you at this time.
  7. Ask yourself: if I knew I was going to die in a year, what writing project would I want to complete? If I knew I was going to die in a year, what writing project would I want to spend my time on even if I might not complete it?

Hopefully something will stand out after that, but no matter what, it is a risk. That last question should make it easier to commit to a project and see it through–because the real test is not picking the right project but staying with it. There is no objectively right project, there is only the project that you can commit to.

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Maybe I should have played D&D

I’ve been listening to The Adventure Zone podcast, thanks to an effusive article on it by Film Crit Hulk. I’ve never played D&D, but I had a lot of friends in late high school who played RPGs (Role Playing Games). Actually, they mostly played LARPs (Live Action Role Plays), some even with foam-covered PVC (polyvinyl chloride–sorry not sorry) pipes.

For those who aren’t familiar, RPGs are a sort of non-comedic improv game, where characters–that have to obey certain rules of construction–are guided through an adventure by the DM/GM (Dungeon Master/Game Master). I did once play an NPC (non-player character) in a local Vampire LARP, but if there was a GM, they were nowhere to be found, so I didn’t know what to do. And I suspect it was an excuse for a boy I had a flirtation with to bite my neck.

….Anyhooooo, I was always tangential to groups of people playing RPGs, but I never did it myself. I think a part of me definitely thought it was a nerdy bridge too far. I didn’t really see the point. But I think my biggest concern was always that I would do it wrong. I was painfully perfectionistic well into my 20s, and playing an RPG felt so exposed–what if I did it wrong? What if I was totally boring? WHAT IF I DID IT WRONG?????

(The world might end. My friends might think I was boring, which was like the world ending, but worse. I might have to fling myself into the sun.)

Once I started writing more seriously, I told myself that I wouldn’t want to play an RPG because (a) it wouldn’t produce any potentially publishable work, and (b) if I couldn’t control all the characters, and the ending, what was the point? But now that I’m listening to The Adventure Zone, which is a podcast of three brothers and their father playing D&D, I finally get it. Griffin is a strong DM who always has good scenarios for his players.

They make jokes, about the situation they are in, and about family pecadillos because they know each other well. The characters, especially Taako, the dumb-as-a-brick elven wizard, are hilarious and sometimes poignant. There are wonderful NPCs, even early on, like Klarg, the Oolong-tea-drinking orc, and Jess The Beheader, a professional wrestler, and poor, departed Jenkins (who put up with a lot of shit from the main guys, let me tell you).

I admire what they’re doing, and it doesn’t seem as impossible for me to engage with as it once did. I see how everyone works together to make it a good storytelling experience. It’s a totally different kind of storytelling than writing a novel, and wonderful in its own way. I think I finally get it now. Maybe playing an RPG wouldn’t be fraught, wouldn’t expose the fact that I’m a writer because I think much better in text that I can go back and fix than I do out loud, on my feet. Maybe it would be fun. Maybe it would be play.

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What if you don’t feel like writing?

When I solicited blog post ideas on Facebook, my mom asked me “Are there days that you just don’t feel like writing? What do you do then?”

Since I’ve become a full-time writer, those days come a lot less frequently, partially because writing is my job now, and I can’t just not do my job. I try to write every day, but sometimes, especially if I’m otherwise very busy, and really cranking through, perhaps one day out of ten I will feel too burned out to write, and I try to give myself a break.

But I always like to make sure that I’m not writing that day because I actually need a break, not because something is wrong in the story I’m writing.

Because the feeling of not wanting to write, for me, almost always comes from wanting to avoid approaching some story problem. When I’m really into a draft, like I am now with the third book of my Viking trilogy, The Golden Wolf, I think about it all the time. I woke up at 5:30 this morning and couldn’t get back to sleep wondering if I needed to make Ragnvald more proactive and less reactive in his arc.

When I’m really into writing, I feel like I’m engaged in an a wild, passionate romance with all of my characters. I love their flaws. I love their strengths. I picture them. I fantasize about them. I rush to the computer, or a notebook, to jot down snippets of conversation, scenes, which come to me at odd moments, though I also schedule a certain amount of writing each day.

When I don’t want to write, I need to figure out why, and usually I sit down with a notebook, and write questions to myself, and then the answers:

Why don’t I want to write today?

I am writing this scene with Character X, and it’s boring me.

Why is the scene boring me? What purpose does the scene serve? What is the conflict? What decision does the POV character make? How does the chapter fit into the story’s theme? How can this scene serve more than once purpose in the story?

I’ve written about these questions before, and I go back to them time and time again. If I can’t answer them, there’s something wrong with the scene, or the story overall. I write about these questions and their answers, and the questions they lead me to, and until I find the answers I need to keep writing.

Sometimes the answer is that there’s something wrong with the character. I have characters in this trilogy that are more and less interesting, and that’s okay. The nice thing about fiction is I can skip to the interesting bits, and slide over the times in between. I try to make every character at least understandable in her own right, if not interesting, but some characters just don’t merit POV chapters, or a lot of “screen” time. And every character can at least be made slightly more interesting. No one always reacts the same way, no one is just one thing.

I also frequently use the desktop app called “Write or Die”, where I set a time and a word count, and write until I hit that word count. Write or Die gives you unpleasant noises, a red flashing screen, and a giant spider if you stop writing for too long, and that keeps me composing without thinking too much. It might seem a little childish, but I’ve now written nearly three long novels using it, so it works for me.

My mom also asked another question: “At what point do you decide that something isn’t working? How do you fix it? When do you decide it cannot be saved?”

Those are harder questions, and while I do believe in finishing things, some stories, some novels can’t be saved, or at least not by me, at the time that I’m writing them. Sometimes the answer to “why don’t I feel like writing” is “I’m writing the wrong thing”.

I’m not going to answer those questions today, though, because right now I’m writing the right thing, and my characters want me back.

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It’s NaNo and I’m Rough Drafting Again

A found object sculpture.

I’ve never “won” NaNoWriMo, though I have written 50,000 words in November before, but I think “winning” NaNo is actually completing a novel. Anyway, 50,000 words is a pretty short novel–The Half-Drowned King was somewhere around 145,000 words, and The Sea Queen is 157,000 as it heads for copy editing. (I find word-count a much better way to count progress than pages. Pages are quite variable.)

My other trouble with NaNo, personally, is that I have a strong contradictory streak, and the moment someone tells me to do something, I want to do the opposite. But I think NaNo is a great way to get into a regular writing practice. When I was writing and had a 50-hour-a-week job, I committed to writing a minimum of 500 words a day, 6 days a week, and tried to write 2000 words a day. I found that a helpful way to establish my practice, since 500 words doesn’t take very long, but kept my head in the game.

Now that The Sea Queen is headed for copy-editing, I’ve gotten back into The Golden Wolf, the final book of Ragnvald and Svanhild’s story. I had been having a good time with the rough draft before I had to leave it to edit The Sea Queen, but it’s amazing how quickly it fell out of my head.

Still, I believe in rough drafting as quickly as possible, so I didn’t want to review everything. I did a few days of interviews with myself where I wrote down my understanding of the arcs of the main characters, and major events, and made sure they still tallied with my timeline. I came up with solutions to a few plot problems that had been troubling me, and then I dived back into rough drafting.

I’m finding my rough drafts are getting rougher and rougher as I write more novels. I do have is a good idea of all the events that need to happen before I start rough drafting, but this is different than knowing all the scenes. As I’m going along through my outline, I’m thinking of the scenes I’ll need, and writing them down as quickly as possible. Sometimes just snippets. Sometimes I’ll put a lot of backstory in a scene, or a lot of explanatory text, knowing that later I will have to turn that into another scene, or cut it.

The key with a rough draft is to keep going–write the things that are exciting to me. The moment a scene gets boring, I cut it off, or change it midstream. I quit each day with some ideas of what I’m going to dive into the next day.

My general plan with this book, and what worked for The Sea Queen as well is:

  1. Extremely rough draft–in some ways this is/will be a 120,000 word outline. I write all the scenes that I think need to be written, but no connective tissue, and those scenes may not even be complete. They are mostly written in order, but they are sketches. I have about 90,000 words of this written now.
  2. First draft: in this draft, I go back through and connect everything, make the scenes into chapters, make the plot all connect. When this draft is complete, I should have something readable, with a coherent plot, and no major unresolved questions.
  3. Full read through: this is the first time I am doing an end to end read through without trying to change things as I go. This was super painful for The Sea Queen, but at this point the novel was pretty fixable.
  4. 2nd & 3rd drafts: these are passes I will do on my own, getting the novel into as good shape as possible before showing it to anyone else.
  5. Then I will show it to my agent, editor, and the editing passes with someone else begin. With this counting scheme The Sea Queen went through 8 drafts, with 6 readers.

I’m letting myself be even rougher with The Golden Wolf because I know that the first draft, that second step, is where it really all comes together. To use a sculpting metaphor, I feel like right now I’m gathering big mounds of clay, or maybe a bunch of found objects, and laying them out in a vague order of how I’m going to apply them to the finished thing, but they are just rough objects right now. But I also know that once I have those objects, then I can begin the real work.

So as this year’s NaNoWriMo starts, consider making your NaNo draft a fast and dirty rough draft. Consider not worrying if scenes begin or end, or if you’re writing them in the right order. It is almost guaranteed that your first draft will not be a publishable novel. It may not even be particularly coherent, and that’s fine. Think of it as the raw material you need to craft something.

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So you’ve found a Viking warrior’s grave…

Reconstruction of what the grave may have looked like to begin with. Credit: Uppsala University

Recent evidence has come out that a Viking-Age grave in Uppsala Sweden contained a woman buried with arms, armor, horses, and a tactical board game.

Looking at the evidence as a lay person, I feel like that’s all you can really say about it that cannot be disputed. However, combined with literary sources that mention women warriors and commanders, it seems likely that she was a woman warrior. Widows of wealthy and powerful men in Viking-Age Scandinavia were sometimes known to command their dead husband’s warriors. While in the lists of virtues in the Eddas, young men and women had very different aspirations–bravery and good housekeeping, respectively–the virtues that older men and women could aspire to were the same: wisdom, fair dealing, strategic thinking.

There seems to be a bit of circular reasoning in much archaeology, as it purports to tell us how people lived: a grave found with weapons in it must be a man’s, therefore only men were warriors. Similarly, a grave with household goods in it is necessarily a woman’s grave, therefore women mostly tended the household. This circular reasoning is more likely than most to uphold our current social biases. It is good to have DNA evidence that gives evidence of more possibilities.

Still, we have good evidence that this woman would have been unusual. (If she truly was a warrior; of course, I love to think that she was! But we also have literary evidence that women were given swords to hold in trust for their sons, so a woman might be buried with weapons for symbolic reasons, not necessarily martial ones.) Most of the literary evidence does point to a sharp division between the sexes, especially allowing for the fact that literary sources are more likely to highlight unusual and dramatic circumstances than prosaic ones.

Articles like this make me more glad than ever that I’m in the business of writing fiction, not history. I like to think about the breadth of what is possible–to me it’s always seemed likely that there were some Viking warrior women–without worrying about whether there is verifiable evidence of every possibility I’ve imagined.

For more on the roles of women in Viking literary sources, check out this essay I wrote for LitHub: “To Live Like the Women of Viking Literature”.

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On Critique and Criticism

One of my favorite podcasts is I Don’t Even Own A Television, a podcast about bad books. I was the kid whose parents literally did not own a television when I was growing up (ask me about 80s TV! I have no idea! I’m like an alien who arrived in pop culture in 1994!), so I love the title. Even more, I love the criticism; it’s a funny, snarky podcast about bad books. The hosts are hilarious and well-read, and approach the subject with positivity, wit, and joy.

Recently a question came up on the IDEOTV message boards for authors: how would you feel if they did an episode on your book?

Oh, dear readers, I would not feel good. They can and should approach whatever books they want, and I’m sure they would do a wonderful job, but sharing fiction with the world makes me feel more vulnerable and exposed than if I walked down the street naked. I would not listen to that episode and would avoid learning anything about it.

And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. There is a difference between critique and criticism. Critique is feedback aimed at making my work better, and at making me a better writer. Criticism is for other readers. Perhaps it would be helpful to see a pattern in criticism of my work and try to address my deficiencies in the next novel, but ultimately, criticism is for readers deciding whether to read my books, and how they might think about them when they do.

I’m not sure I need to learn to feel good about bad reviews. But I did need to learn to take critique and turn it into self-improvement. Before I got my MFA, I took some writing classes with Gotham Writers Workshop, which was a fantastic way to get my feet wet and get used to receiving critique on my writing. The first story I wrote touched on a very painful friend breakup I had experienced. After turning it in for workshop, I got sick to my stomach and couldn’t hold down solid food for a week. True story.

It got easier over time, but I am not a thick-skinned person for whom taking critique came easily. I would like to be perfect. A part of me believes that if I make any mistake, the earth should probably open up and swallow me so that I am no longer a blemish upon its surface. I want to curl up, cease to exist, fling myself into the sun, hide in a closet, run away and change my name so none will ever know my shame…

So much of advice about taking critique is about not getting defensive and angry, about being open to other people’s perspectives. I envy people whose first instinct is defensiveness and not self-abnegation. The most important journey of my adult life has been learning how to live with mistakes and failure without feeling like they are existential threats.

Another thing that helped was doing some freelance writing for an ad agency. I wrote 1000-word case studies about marketing analytics software. My soul and id is in my novels, but not in that copy. When I was learning the style that the agency wanted, I had to do five drafts of the first case study. It wasn’t great for my ego, and I still felt badly about not getting it right on the first try, but it wasn’t as though they were criticizing my inner self. Taking that critique and using it to improve the advertising pieces made it easier to be a bit more businesslike about my creative writing.

There are differences as well, though. When you’re a freelance writer, writing for a customer, the customer is right, and has the final say. When you’re doing creative writing, you are the final arbiter, and the work’s fidelity to your vision is what success should be measured against. Critique in a workshop also has its challenges. It is different and, to me, better to be taking critique from people invested in selling my books. But no matter what, the steps I go through in taking critique are as follows:

  1. Don’t react externally to critique, especially right away. Don’t justify or apologize. They’re both useless. Thank the person for the critique, and plan to spend some time with it.
  2. Feel your feelings. You’ll probably have lots of feelings. Some of them may be intense. For me it’s self-pity and worthlessness; for you it might be anger and denial. They’re your feelings. They’re okay. They won’t last forever. You’ll probably not want to share them too much except with trusted friends. Don’t vent on the internet. I like to set aside a day or two to sit with critique before taking any action on it.
  3. If you don’t understand the critique, ask questions about it.
  4. Measure the suggestions against your own barometer of what the work should be, but remember that a new reader will see things you have not. I love suggestions for how I should change something. Often I change the thing in a different way, but seeing the way a reader wants something changed points out to me what they snagged on. I might not agree with their solution, but it’a always good to know what tripped them up.
  5. Get ready for the next round.

Critique is a gift, but don’t be ashamed if it’s challenging to process, and requires practice and self-knowledge. If I didn’t feel anything when I received critique, if I were 100% thick-skinned and could shrug it off, I wonder if I’d have enough emotional investment in my work.

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May Book Updates

Blushing pearsI got a wonderful review from Kirkus:

“Steeped in legend and myth, Hartsuyker’s debut is a swashbuckling epic of family, love, and betrayal that reimagines the Norse sagas.  At 20, hotheaded Ragnvald is old enough to be a warrior “and counted a man”—but not old enough to see betrayal coming. After he’s nearly killed in a plot orchestrated by his stepfather, Ragnvald swears allegiance first to King Hakon, then to King Harald , hoping to win enough power to take back the land that’s rightfully his. Meanwhile, his sister, Svanhild, abandons the protections of family and friends to escape an arranged marriage—only to find herself at the mercy of her brother’s betrayer, Solvi. Hartsuyker bases Ragnvald’s tale on the epic of King Harald Fairhair, one of her possible ancestors. The historic figure of Ragnvald rose to prominence as one of Harald’s fiercest warriors during the unification of Norway in the ninth century. In the gaps of recorded history, Hartsuyker weaves a tale of myth, magic, and superstition, where “the chilly fingers of Ran’s handmaidens” can pull a sailor to his death or an undead draugr can terrorize a village. The contours of Ragnvald and Svanhild’s reality are equally dangerous, and Hartsuyker doesn’t shy away from depicting the slaughter, rape, and deception that marked the raids and battles of the Viking age. While Hartsuyker’s prose is straightforward, the plot is as deliciously complex as Game of Thrones. And, in an era so dominated by the tales of men, it’s nice to see a complicated, cunning heroine like Svanhild swoop in and steal the show. Hold on to your helms and grab your shields—Hartsuyker is just getting started.”

The Historical Novel Society published an article showcasing The Half-Drowned King and other new voices in historical fiction.

The Half-Drowned King has made a bunch of very flattering lists:

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Should you get an MFA?

Sorry it’s been a while since I’ve done a blog update. I’ve been working on edits to The Sea Queen from my editor at HarperCollins–all done now! I’ve also written some essays that my publicist and I are trying to get placed in various publications to promote The Half-Drowned King.

Recently, I’ve been reconnecting with some friends from my MFA program. Also, one of my cousins is considering going for an MFA, and it seemed worthwhile to write about my experience for anyone who googles “Should I Get An MFA” as I frequently did when making that decision. When I was about 30, I was working at an internet startup that I was not particularly excited about. I had gone through several years of therapy to help with cycles of depression and anxiety that made my life rather unpleasant. I was starting to feel like I was not, actually, one mistake away from utter ruin, and that I could try different things with my life and it would be okay. At the same time, I was considering my career path, and where I might find meaning in my life. I loved writing and wrote whenever I had free time, but didn’t feel like it was a serious enough pursuit, or that I was good enough at it, to commit to it.

I was considering going back to school, possibly to get an MBA so I could be better at helping run internet startups. Maybe if I threw myself into that, I thought, it would start to feel fulfilling. I was ruminating on that possibility on a now defunct journalling platform. One of my online friends, who had seen me start and stop many writing projects, including what would grow into The Half-Drowned King, wrote, “You shouldn’t get an MBA, you should get an MFA.”

It was exactly the right thing to say to me. I thought: yes, I should get an MFA. But before committing the time and money, I wanted to make sure it was the right choice. I signed up for a Gotham Writers Workshop’s Intro to Creative Writing Class with Evan Rehill and then took several iterations of Gotham’s Novel-Writing Workshop with Diana Spechler.

I loved both of those classes, but eventually I found that wanted more than they offered: to study with students who were perhaps more committed to their craft (though I worked with many very serious writers at Gotham), to read and learn from published literature with my fellow writers, and most of all, I wanted to make a commitment to myself about writing. By the time I began my MFA program at NYU, I had finished writing a few drafts of The Half-Drowned King, and had representation for it, but I wanted to learn more, and continue down the path of becoming a more skilled and interesting writer.

It was the right choice for me. I had savings so I wouldn’t need to go into debt. I had an established career I could go back to. I had confidence in my writing, along with a desire to learn and change. I don’t think these are prerequisites for anyone doing an MFA, but they were for me.

Things to know about MFA programs:

  1. They do not guarantee a writing or teaching career, but they can help An MFA is a degree that qualifies its bearers to teach Creative Writing. Many programs help writers meet agents. But teaching jobs can be scarce, and agents accept plenty of writers who don’t have MFAs.
  2. Workshops are both good and bad. I plan to write a whole separate post about this, but they are not the be-all, end-all of learning to write. I think, at their best, they reflect your writing back to you, so you can see if it had the effect you wanted.
  3. It’s a Masters of Fine Arts, with the emphasis on arts. I view writing as both craft and art, and like to make sure my craft is solid, while art comes like grace. Some of the works we studied felt to me like diving in at the deep end of the pool, looking at novels and stories that broke every rule and still succeeded before learning how and why the rules exist in the first place.

Things I loved about getting an MFA:

  1. Spending so much time with other writers. We’re an awkward, introverted, vain bunch, infuriating and wonderful at the same time. Most of us see our own foibles and each other’s far too clearly for comfort, but there’s something wonderful about that as well, like being with family. I don’t always love the workshop format, but some of my best workshops were great because of my fellow students at least as much because of the faculty.
  2. Reading, reading, reading. My dearest hope going into an MFA program was to get to read things I would not otherwise read, and expand my horizons that way, and I did, in many wonderful classes, and then I filled notebooks with lists of books I should read in addition to those.
  3. Devoting the time and mental energy to writing. For two years, my whole life was about reading and writing. When I graduated, I did get a full time job again, but I knew writing was my most important pursuit and chose my job accordingly.

So should you get an MFA? Yes, if you want to, and:

  • You can afford it
  • You’re serious about writing and want to spend 2 or more years thinking about writing
  • You’re open to growing and changing as a writer
  • But also have a clear vision of and commitment to who you are as a writer. I was very glad I took a number of writing classes before getting an MFA, was practiced at taking critique, and had some experience sorting helpful critique from unhelpful.

Getting an MFA was the right choice for me, that continues to pay wonderful dividends in my creative life, but it is not the only choice for writers.

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UK Cover and Other News

I am very pleased to announce the UK Cover of The Half-Drowned King from my UK publisher, Little, Brown.

Also, The Half-Drowned King has been chosen for Barnes and Noble’s Discover Great New Writers program for Summer 2017. It will be featured in the Discover display in Barnes and Noble in stores across the country. I am currently working to arrange events at various bookstores in August, so it looks like I will have a mini book tour after all!

Yesterday I recorded a short video for HarperCollins’s Genre-Bending video blog, which should be available in a month or so. Previous entries here:

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