The Empowerment of Defeat

Alison Taylor-BrownTo the right is a picture of a young woman. She is thirty years old, and, as you can tell by her expression, she is utterly pleased with her life. She is doing the thing she has wanted to do since she was a little girl. She has become a writer.

Her book has been bought by a senior editor and vice-president at Simon & Schuster. She has never met the man, nor, at this date, does she understand just what a name he is in New York publishing. He is Donald Hutter, former editor-in-chief of Holt, Rinehart & Winston where he had his own imprint.

The woman recognizes that she has been incredibly lucky. She doesn’t even have a writing degree. She took an undergraduate course at the University of Arkansas. A graduate assistant suggested she send ten pages of her novel to Douglas Jones, a local novelist. She followed up with a phone call and Jones, who was ex-military and crusty, said, “Young lady, I’m not in the business of helping young writers get started. But . . . I’ll give you the name of my agent.”

To the agent, she send 100 pages and an outline. His name was George Weiser, and he was telling his client Dan Brown to write thrillers. Two weeks after receiving the young woman’s query, Weiser called. “I’m not taking any new clients. But . . . I’m going to take you.”

Two weeks after that, Weiser and Hutter were having drinks and the publisher asked the agent, “Do you have anyone new?”

Wiser said, “Yes, but her book’s not finished.”

“Send it over anyway.”

They flew her to New York, took her to a fancy lunch, talked to her about British rights and a television miniseries. Her life, Weiser said seriously, as they waited for a cab–her first–would never be the same.

She had a contract and an advance which, because she tried to be a good person, she donated to a children’s home in Honduras. She bought a KayPro computer and went to work finishing her novel. Her mom put the picture in her hometown newspaper. “Local writer signs with Simon & Schuster.”

Alas. Hutter was fired. Her book was orphaned. She didn’t understand. If Hutter thought it was good, why didn’t the editor who replaced him? There was a contract, but to pursue that she would have to hire a New York attorney. She didn’t want to sue. She wanted her book published. She borrowed the money to pay back her advance in order to regain the rights.

She was shattered. She didn’t know what to do. Her agent was kind but he didn’t shop the manuscript, and she didn’t push. She cried whenever she entered a bookstore. She gave up on writing. She would do other things with her life.

She started a company and two nonprofits, traveled, designed her house, taught in several universities, became a foster parent. But she never stopped thinking about writing. In middle age, she got a master’s degree in fiction to try again.

So, what can we learn from her story?

Never give up. The truth is that many books are orphaned for various reasons. I knew of an author whose books were printed and just a few days away from being shipped to bookstores. His publisher merged with another, and his books were shredded before he even knew it.

Do I think that my book might have been published if I’d gotten on a plane, sat down in Weiser’s office, gotten referrals from Hutter, TRIED? Maybe.

It’s never too late. I’m a poster child for resetting your life, returning to your first love. So you fell off the horse and broke your heart. Don’t give up.

Every experience informs the writer. I am a different writer than the young, happy woman above. I am practical. I understand what it takes not only to write a book but to promote it.

I am wiser. I am stronger. I have something to say.

She only wanted to be a writer, but I am passionate to tell the unique stories that rise inside me. She was called by the process. I am driven by the story. Those are two different things.

A lot of us have been rejected, felt defeated, given up. But the stories we have to tell now are wiser and better informed and truer than if success had found us early.

Are you feeling defeated today? Then I promise you, you’ll be a better writer tomorrow . . . if you don’t give up. 

 

Research Can Get You a Laurel

This week I’m answering some questions that have come in about my trip to North Carolina.

What on earth could be worth driving three days one way? Sometimes, we get the idea to write about someone or something but we don’t see the story. The 13th-century Italian writer Boccaccio sounded interesting. But who was he really?

How did you know about this woman you visited? Dr. Roberta Morosini teaches Italian Studies at Wake Forest University. She writes articles about Boccaccio. When I realized that there was an expert in the southern United States (who spoke English!), I knew I wanted to have a lengthy visit with her.

alisonHow did you set up the meeting? I wrote to her and asked to interview her. I made it clear that I wanted a formal interview in her office and then an informal brainstorming session over dinner. She suggested we go out the evening before the interview as well.

 

 

 

What questions did you ask? My first question was: If you knew Boccaccio today and you were going to tell me about him, what would you say? Then I asked the question of first importance: what drove him? What was his burning desire and did he achieve it?  
 
Did you record the interview? I didn’t. I could have, but I was looking for big points on which to hang my plot, rather than specific dates and details. I have a theory that the cream rises to the top of our brains, and that too many facts and figures actually impede creativity. 
 
Was it worth it? Totally. This will be a much different book—and a truer book—because I went to the effort to spend several hours with a woman whose life’s work is this character. She explained to me about being “crowned with the laurel.”
 
In the ancient world, a laurel wreath symbolized not only athletic victory but poetic prowess. It wasn’t just an award for being a great poet. (I tried to compare it to literary prizes today, but Dr. Morosini said no no no no no no no.) The laurel was a symbol of wisdom. She showed me an amazing image of a man shipwrecked and drowning who has reached out and grasped hold of a laurel bush to save himself. This reflects the belief that only wisdom can rescue society. To receive the laurel wreath was to be recognized as a writer who had something important to say about how one should live one’s life to create a good society that would benefit all its citizens.  

boccaccioDuring Boccaccio’s life, King Robert of Naples, the most cultured monarch of the time, crowned the writer Petrarch with the laurel wreath. After that, Boccaccio spent his life working for that honor but never received it, despite the fact that he is often portrayed as wearing a laurel crown.

So what? Well, I don’t know about you, but whenever I get a rejection letter, I totally understand the heartbreak of not having my work appreciated. Yes, the novel will still feature the Black Death, war, assassination, illegitimate children and their mothers. But the real heartbreak will be that darn laurel.
 
I’m excited about this, and I would never have understood it had I not gone to North Carolina.
 
Over and over, I advise writers to pursue research and not to be put off by a little effort or expense. And never forget that an academic brings a whole other perspective to any discussion. Maybe you’re not writing historical fiction but science fiction or crime drama or your memoir that begins in the 1950s. I promise there is an expert out there who would love to share their knowledge with you on any of those topics.

alison3Not only did I come away with great information, but I made a friend who is going to be my guide in Naples this summer and take me into the very castle of King Robert.

So don’t be afraid to get up and go. Consider research a necessity rather than a luxury. Give yourself permission to put your writing first, even if it means something else has to wait.

And don’t forget your expenses are tax deductible.

Who is Your Antagonist?

Stephen King had the same problem in 11/22/63 that I have in Line of Ascent. No bad guy.

monster-bwOh sure, in King’s book there are bad guys and problems that pop up, but there is no overarching villain to be defeated except TIME itself. King solves this problem by saying that TIME does not want to be changed. So whenever the protagonist is about to do something significant, random events rear up to stop him, i.e., his car breaks down. He begins to anticipate that this will happen and a fun tension in the book is what will TIME do to protect itself? I love the tagline: When You Fight the Past, the Past Fights Back.

I also have no bad guy. In Line of Ascent, there is the Spanish Inquisition and sinister Cardinal Carafe and a host of natural and human impediments to the quest. But they do not, like Javert in Les Miserables, give us an enemy that carries through the entire story.

Ever since I took Dr. Gary Guinn’s plot workshop, I’ve worried about my lack of antagonist. Last week, when someone suggested that I have my main character return through time to confront his other self, etc., I was horrified. That’s been done, and that is NOT the book I want to write in Line of Ascent.

However, I did realize that this person had put his finger on the issue. No bad guy. In my novel, History itself is the antagonist. But that is vague and nebulous. TIME only became a character in 9/11/62 when King gave it the motive to protect itself from being changed.

In my novel, it’s not that History doesn’t want to be changed—it really doesn’t care. The problem is that History is HUGE and dangerous. It has to be changed in many ways, in many countries to effect Jake’s goal of preventing the Protestant Reformation. It wasn’t just about Martin Luther. It was about the sale of indulgences and Henry VIII’s wanting a different wife.

So I have created the metaphor of a giant octopus/monster with tentacles. Jake explains that each of these can be cut off but the creature still survive. Yet, any one of them can drag you to your death. It is Erasmus who identifies the head of the creature and how they might kill it. I am hoping that the reappearance of this metaphor as the quest progresses will give a certain spine (irony) to it and prevent it from being just a series of episodes.

If you don’t have an antagonist, don’t do as I did and just wonder vaguely if it matters. It probably does—especially for commercial fiction. Try to find a creative way, as King did, to personify the thing that is working against your character. Or if the overarching enemy is some vague idea, like time or history or philosophy, perhaps a metaphor can convey the complexity of the force that stands against your protagonist.

Is Your Niche too Tight?

Maybe I didn’t light a stick of dynamite under my platform, but it sort of feels like that. After putting a great deal of effort into my I’m-a-funny-popular-historian-who-who-can-talk-to-you-about-codpieces platform, I began to feel that this didn’t speak to all that I really am interested in, all that I really am.

I found myself wanting to talk about history in different ways–how it impacts us today and how our personal history can imprison us or set us free. I understand that we all have a niche market, but it was feeling mighty cramped in here in my niche–not that quirky history stories cannot be as wide as the world, Pamela Toler.

But I wanted to look at the deeper personal issues that spring from history, both the world’s and our own. So I contacted a media consultant who forced me to articulate my “through line.” 

By expanding my platform, I am now able to create posts and blogs like this. Where I get to talk about the impact of history at both the large level and the level of our own thoughts and attitudes.

The immediate result of all this is that my webpage no longer has a history blog and a writing blog and a sixteenth-century banner. Neither does Facebook. I’m no longer only sharing and discussing history. I now get to talk about Prose the super puppy. It feels real, and authentic, and all me.

 Do You Need to Expand Your Platform?

Everything we do online needs to stay on the highway of our through line. It’s not so much that you may need to widen your platform as to deepen it. Are your characters in a fight against evil? You can use that. Are they strong women? Explore all that that means. Are they overcoming childhood baggage, as mine are? Work it, baby. As Dan Blank says, (I know, I quote him all the time.) what experience are you the gateway into for your readers? How are you helping them to see the world and, when they identify with your characters, how are you helping them define themselves?

I’m in the very early stages of this process, so you can watch me struggle to figure it out and learn from my mistakes.

Definitely identify your niche, but make sure it’s big enough that you can stretch your wings.

499 Years Ago, Your Life Changed

October 31 will be Halloween. All Hallows Eve. The night before the Christian holy day of All Hallows’ Day or All Saints’ Day. On this day in 1517, Martin Luther strode up to the wooden doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany and nailed up a list of 95 questions.

He was a nobody outside his own town, and he didn’t ask anything that others had not been saying for centuries. And yet, for a number of political and economic and social reasons and because printing presses were now common in many cities, those questions sparked the Protestant Reformation, a big brouhaha that turned into the Thirty Years War and a lot of other mayhem.

Many of us assume that was just a dust-up within the Christian church, so it has nothing to do with us if we’re not Christian and perhaps, very little if we are because, after all, that was long, long ago. 

The truth is that Luther’s act changed the political face of the new world and popularized a way of thinking that still has us in its grip today. Like many things in history, the impact was at both the macro level and at the micro level of individual thought.

Macro: If the Emperor Charles V, who ruled Spain and all the German lands, had not been so bogged down in the religious fighting within his own lands, he could have easily out-colonized the English and the French since those two countries didn’t even get interested in the New World for another century. We wouldn’t be debating whether or not Spanish should be a second language in the U.S. because it would be the first one. And would the separation of church and state have been in the forefront of our founders’ thinking without the background of centuries of religious persecution and executions?

Micro: The thing Luther brought into the popular collective consciousness is the approach to life based on identifying and opposing error. The whole idea of “reformation” presupposes that something is wrong and needs to be fixed. The problem the early reformers faced was agreeing on what exactly was wrong and how exactly to fix it. Their various approaches to these two problems form the foundations of the Protestant denominations many of us grew up in. And whether or not we still embrace that faith exactly, we still think in those patterns. As if all of life were a big quiz to which we must find the right answer or flunk. Or as if we were a teacher with a big red pen to mark everyone’s wrong answers.

Certainly there is a place for reformation. In government. In the environment. In so many of our societal ills. But the tendency in “reformation” thinking is to weigh all issues the same. The early reformers poured the same amount of passion into every debate, unable to differentiate between the ones that mattered and the ones that didn’t. People were burned at the stake over a word. Often, it seems to me, we do that same thing, allowing ourselves to sweat the small stuff which distracts us from the big issues we should be addressing.

October 31 marks the beginning of the global, year-long celebration of the Reformation. The Pope will be in Sweden to join Lutheran leaders for an ecumenical service marking the start of a jubilee commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. 

I think a great way to spend the year would be to undertake a reformation within ourselves, seeking to identify where we approach life and others with criticism and judgment and where we are focusing on the nonessentials to the detriment of our great calling to live a joyful, compassionate life. 

As is said about the Church, so it should be at the personal level. Semper reformans, semper reformanda. Always reforming, always in need of reform.