Albany NY, June 8-10, 2007
Friday night there was a dinner banquet at the Desmond Hotel in Albany. Bernard Cornwell was the keynote speaker and unfortunately I didn't make it thanks to the evil incompetent sadists of O'Hare International Airport. Cornwell was eloquently hilarious, apparently.
So the first panel I dragged myself in to see Saturday morning was "Fictionalizing the Already Famous" with Jeanne Mackin and Brenda Rickman Vantrease. Jeanne said that bad fiction is telling the same story over and over, thus perpetuating myths and legends about a historical figure--for example, the myth that Marie Antoinette said "Let them eat cake." (She never said that.) If you're going to use what Irene Goodman calls a "marquee name" in your fiction, readers already have preconceived ideas, so you have to keep digging to find the fresh character.
Jeanne asked us to mention which historical figure we felt like at that very moment, and I thought "Timothy Leary" because I felt on drugs after no sleep for two days.
The already famous are emblems, so you need to keep building and refreshing them, not building up the same lies over and over again. Kosinski said "Only in fiction can we tell the whole truth."
Brenda said Michelangelo looked at a piece of marble and saw his character in the block. He merely chipped away at it until the person was freed. The drama is in the first cut, the first rough draft, and like Michelangelo you need to learn what to leave out. Someone asked how to interest readers who are not enthralled with your particular era or setting, and Brenda thinks you need to catch them off balance--you need to have a new approach, not the same old "let them eat cake."
Irene Goodman was the keynote speaker at the luncheon. They must not have set up 300 chairs because it was SRO—standing room only. Irene talked about being in second grade and students were asked to choose between two study subjects--animals or "the olden days." She was the only one who didn't choose animals. Her mother would yell at her to go outside and play, and she'd yell back, "But I'm already up here playing with my friends!" Her historical "olden days" friends.
When she went into publishing, there were a few anomalies like Jean Auel, Colleen McCullough, and John Jakes, but they were considered the exceptions to the rule--historical fiction was a dead zone. Now, Irene said, The floodgates are open! Now you have atrocious in-laws, jealousy, trophy wives, drop dead gorgeous women, and history is full of sex! The sky's the limit, as long as it's well told and has the necessary hook.
Now you have historical fiction shelves in bookstores in the nebulous section titled "Literature," which means anything from Mark Twain to Jackie Collins. There are sub-genres: historical thrillers, historical mysteries, historical romance (and some is quite good, she added--and like TV, some is bad). You just have to know where to look.
Some subjects seemed unmarketable until a writer broke the barrier. Australia was stupid until The Thornbirds came along. Right now England is the smart place to set a historical since the TV advent of "The Tudors," even though they changed France into Portugal for no good reason.
Next up: "Sharpe Practice: Writing a Historical Novel" by Bernard Cornwell. He said the entire panel would revolve around "All right, who has a question?" The first question was, "Why is it so difficult for an American author to get published or taken seriously in England?" Cornwell hated Cold Mountain. He said there is no way men talk to each other like that, so damned serious all the bloody time--men joke together. He wrote a Civil War series after he'd moved to the States, and we were so fond of pointing out "mistakes" that weren't, but nobody would listen to him because he was British.
He said we're writing historical entertainment--leave history to the historians. Write an exciting story, but write A STORY first and foremost. You read a history book and you don't say "Wait, I can't go to sleep, I've got to get to the end of Chapter Five!" But you do when you read a historical STORY. The worst thing you can do is to make it obvious that you copied facts down from notecards. We entertain. You have to chuck 95% of your research in order to TELL YOUR STORY.
Some Americans criticized one of his American stories by claiming "baseball wasn't invented yet," when he knew it was, but his hands were tied in refuting it, because he didn't want to get involved in all that bitchiness.
Someone asked what does he do when he has no inspiration. He laughed and said, Inspiration does not exist! You write by being a writer. You sit there, you write, and you stop in the evening. Writer's block doesn't exist! We all have bad days--that's not writer's block. You write through it, even though it might not be your best work. You don't hear a nurse claiming she has nurse's block, do you? 'I can't come into work today, I have nurse's block.' No one put a gun to your head, 'Be a writer now, dammit!' It's a job of privilege and we should be glad to have it. The dress code is pretty easy, too. Ben Franklin wrote naked. Cornwell encourages this habit, for some of us.
"How much research is too much? How do you know when it’s not enough?" Cornwell doesn't know where to draw the line. You copy from one book, that's plagiarism. You copy from forty books, that's research. Your first draft is like a huge mountain. When you get halfway up there, you look back and you see a better route to the top. The first draft is the biggest job, that's getting the story down right. Don't worry about style or length! He recommended typing out a few pages of your favorite book. In his case it was Forrester, some Horatio Hornblower thing. Put these pages in a drawer. When he went back to look at his pages, he was all, "Oh my god! What crap!" Then he realized, "Holy shit, that’s Forrester!" You can easily see how overly-critical you're being on yourself.
Is he a plotter? No. Someone once said, "There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are." The joy for him is in finding out what happens, the process of discovery along the way. Seeing what his characters decide to do, since he is one of those who views them as living breathing people. He holds conversations with them. People often ask him why he feels the need to have a major woman character. Why not? 70% of his readers are women. The successful writer doesn't write for men! The three most popular subjects in the world are golf, cats, and Nazis, so someone wrote a book called "Golfing for Nazi Cats."
What sells? THE STORY. Tell a good story. Write the book YOU want to read. If you write to the market you're guaranteed to fail. You SHOULD be saying "Bernard Cornwell is no bloody good, I can do better than that!"
Drink Jameson Whiskey, though not until you're done with your day's work, or it's all downhill from there.
Here's how to trick an editor. Put in something stupid that you're completely prepared to give up, and defend it to the death. Let her have her way at the end. Then she'll be too tired to fight the other stuff.
Writing is intuitive. You either have a gift for storytelling, or you don't. Cornwell doesn’t believe in groups, creative writing classes, crit groups. You write alone. The only critics you have to please are #1 yourself, #2 your agent, #3 your publisher, and #4 your readers.
How does he go about writing battle scenes? He wrote a battle scene once that had three sides--it was just too bad not one of them was French. If your battle is famous, the reader already has the terrain fixed in his head. You have to find another reason to visit that place, and you're limited to what the hero can see and smell. He recommends reading John Keegan, The Face of Battle. In another battle scene there were two peaks to a mountain that only confused the issue, so he eliminated one of the peaks. Anything that helps your reader to visualize it clearly.
Part II from Karen on Tuesday!