Monday, December 20, 2010

Putting Patterson's New Historical Novel On Trial

Hello Readers. I was motivated to read Alex Cross’s Trial on two fronts. I’m a Patterson fan, especially of the Woman’s Murder Club series. I’m also attempting to write a historical novel after completing a modern-day thriller. It’s good to see an author of such acclaim has blazed this particular trail.

Trial is set in the early 1900’s. Even though the Civil War is almost forty years in their past, the black characters in Eudora, Mississippi are far from free. An angry word against a white boss overheard by the wrong ears can and does get several such characters hung.

Roosevelt himself sends a young lawyer, Ben Corbett, back to his hometown to investigate the lynchings. Idealistic Ben finds himself the odd man out among his old friends and neighbors when he attempts to defend black people from horrendous acts of racism.

One of the difficulties with writing a historical novel is dialog, so I paid close attention to how Patterson chose his character's words. It’s a delicate balance. Readers expect language has changed over the past 100 years, but no one wants to get bogged down by unfamiliar words and phrases—especially in a thriller. I also noted how Patterson kept reminding the reader of the past with the character’s extreme discomfort in the heat, the problems of delayed communications by post and telegram, travel by horseback, etc.

Like his other books, Trial is an exciting page-turner. While there was nothing wrong with the dialogue or historical setting, both felt like window dressing. Have you ever been reading a book and found yourself recognizing a writing technique? It’s a little like seeing that tiny man working the levers in The Wizard of Oz. I liked the story, but the historical details weren't strong enough for me to suspend my disbelief. With a few adjustments, Trial could have been set in the mid 1900’s.

I don’t know if I’ll have any better luck with my manuscript. In addition to a healthy stack of non-fiction works, I’m reading Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, because it was written about the same time as my novel. I’m guessing it’s much easier for a writer to capture their present that the past. Hopefully, I’ll glean insights to nineteenth century life through works written by authors who lived it themselves. But even that assumption comes with risk. Which popular work of fiction today really captures the early 21st century? Stephen King’s Under the Dome or Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid?

Have you written a historical novel? What was the hardest part?

(I'll be taking next week off. See you in 2011!)

Monday, December 13, 2010

Drifting In The Horse Latitudes

Silhouette of a sailboat in the sea at dusk

After an exciting fall where I spent a heady six weeks making revisions on manuscript #1 for an agent (who passed), my writing life seems adrift. I’m stuck in the Horse Latitudes with only minor breezes pushing me along. It’s warm. No storms are tossing me about, no sharks threaten, but it’s dull.

There’s been a few sparks of accomplishment. Book #2 has been launched. I’m 32 pages in, and while most of it’s raw, there are nuggets of potential. For me, the real writing won’t begin until that first draft is done. I’m an editor; it’s where I live.

The other spark came from a request by my father-in-law, a distinguished professor of mathematics. His long-time friend, colleague, and dissertation professor had passed and he wanted me to look at the eulogy he’d written. To say I was honored would be an understatement. Somehow I put away my awe for both the author and man he was praising, put on my editor hat, and had at it.

After emailing the edited version, I hoped I hadn’t overstepped my bounds or shown any disrespect. Here’s the reply from my father-in-law:

I loved the changes. They are right on target. You have a way of making text come to life. I will have to match the quality with the presentation. However, that is an easier when I have great material.

Wow. After slogging through the query/rejection trenches, his response really gave me a lift. I’m a lucky ducky. I too have a Ph.D. in math and could be earning a significant salary as a math professor. But no one in my family is questioning my choice to pursue my dream. That’s the greatest gift.

However, I get off on hard work and accomplishing things, which makes waiting through the query process tough. Using my writing to help my family is a bonus. Months ago, my husband—another math professor—had me write the introduction to something called a CCLI grant. It was a long shot. Most of these grants were awarded to other areas in science, but he got it. Not only that, his grant was rated number one among all the applicants.

So I told him to let the college’s grant director know I’d be willing to “polish” other professors’ grants. I don’t know if anyone will take me up on it, but it would be nice to help others achieve their dreams.

Have you found other outlets for your writing talent besides fiction? If so, let me know.

Monday, December 6, 2010

You Can’t Always Get What You Want, Or Adventures in Queryland

Illustration of the Planets in Alignment

This is not the blog I wanted to write. I’ll admit it—I got carried away last week with the high hopes that I would be getting The Call. If you’re an aspiring writer, you know what I’m referring to. Here’s the sad story:

Late in September I got a request for a full from Agent 1. Cool beans. The next day, another request for a full (Agent 2). Very cool beans. My query is schmokin’! Except Agent 2 wants to read the ms as an exclusive. Sorry, no can do.

Agent 2 says they’ll read the ms immediately. I get excited. Then two days later, I get an email. Agent 2 stopped at page 100. They can’t offer me representation without some major work, but here’s the catch: They won’t work with me while I’m still in contact with Agent 1. Major nail-biting time.

The potential information from Agent 2 is too good a carrot for this mule, so I bite. I rescind my ms from Agent 1 as gracefully as I can. Agent 1 is understanding and wishes me good luck. I email Agent 2 and get my list of changes.

Six weeks later, the work is done. The manuscript is way, way better and almost 15 K words shorter! I’m stoked as I send the revised ms to Agent 2.

Then the weeks start mounting: one, two, and then just before the third week is over, I crack under the pressure and send a nudger, expecting the worst. Agent 2 sends message back: They’re on page 200, I’ll hear from them in a week or so. !!!!!!!!

After this, my hopes really soar. Page 200! They’ll finish the ms and love it, I’m sure. I get my list of agent questions ready and try to calm down. Each morning I wake up wondering, “Will this be the day that changes my life?” Every time the phone rings, my heart skips.

A week passes. The next day I’m in and out of the house running errands, doctor’s appointment, playdate, the whole suburban mom routine. I don’t get a chance to check my email until after 7 pm. There it is. A message from Agent 2. Not good. I know before I read it. Rejection.

Here’s the take-home message, folks: If an agent loves your ms, part of that love is feeling confident they can place it with an editor who will also love it. And if this editor is with a larger publishing house, there may be a whole hierarchy of people who need to love it too. The planets must align in your favor, or no sale, no soup for you, go back to start, pick your metaphor.

This stings, but it’s not a complete disaster. I sent the new, improved ms back to Agent 1. I still have a strong query and a new list of agents to contact. This is not over.

Would I recommend ‘working’ with an agent who hasn’t signed you? For me, it was worth it. I got a lot of solid information that transformed the manuscript and will make me a better writer. If this opportunity comes your way, take it, but don’t overestimate your status with the agent. Don’t assume they will sign you just because they asked for revisions. Keep querying.

I didn’t get what I wanted from Agent 2, but did I get what I need? Time will tell.