Saturday, May 22, 2010

THE LEARNING CURVE

Living the History on this time's blog post is going to be a revisit of my own past as it applies to becoming a published author of historical fiction. I was reminded about this recently while packing a case with materials for a talk I was going to give and I came across my old geography exercise book from my year in class 5H when I was 15 going on 16. The first novel I ever wrote, (a historical) was started by hand in the spare pages of that exercise book in the school holidays. If you click on the picture below this article it will enlarge to give you a glimpse of my deathless teenage prose! My handwriting is a lot messier these days!
The novel was set in mid 12th Century Outremer - modern day Syria, Israel and Lebanon, and moved to Angevin Europe. My hero was a half-Byzantine, half-English knight who served in the bodyguard of King Fulke of Jerusalem until recalled to Europe by his father's family. It was freely inspired by a TV programme titled Desert Crusader. I've often talked about it and here's a full post on the matter from my archive to save me writing it all out again! http://livingthehistoryelizabethchadwick.blogspot.com/2008/04/tall-dark-and-handsome.html
I had told myself stories verbally for as long as I can remember, but that novel, titled 'Tiger's Eye' after the stones in the hero's sword hilt, was the first time I had ever written anything down. (My father suggested I call it 'Crispin's Capers'!) I realised in the process of writing and completing it that this was what I wanted to do for a living. It was like something very obvious and natural clicking into place. It was what I'd been born to do.
Of course, have that 'ting!' moment and achieving that goal are two entirely separate things, especially in such a crowded market place. I was 15 when I had my epiphany moment, and 32 when I finally got my chance at a career with The Wild Hunt. During those years, I researched and wrote several more historical novels, all set in the Middle Ages. Some were a continuation of the family story begun in 'Tiger's Eye', others were stand alones. All were about 500 pages long and I suppose I was teaching myself how to write commercial historical fiction without actually realising it. All I was doing as far as I was concerned, was having a darned good time. And that I think, is one of the most important things to have as a writer - joy in your writing, and enthusiasm. An inbuilt crap detector is useful too. One acquires this and upgrades it by the experience of writing and also by voracious reading. A writer not only needs to find time to write, he/she needs to find time to read too - and for pleasure. You learn far more quickly when you like what you're doing.
All of those novels were rejected by agents and publishers at one time or another, but it didn't put me off. Rather the rejections spurred me on. The next one would be better, and would blow their socks off. Besides, it was what I did. Despite the main body of the novels being rejected, I was still able to sneakily utilise bits of them in future books. I particularly smile about The Champion which was shortlisted for the UK's Best Romantic Novel of the Year Award in 1998. A goodly chunk of that was an edited portion of reject novel Midsummer's Gift, about a jousting champion, the grandson of my hero from Tiger's Eye.
The novel I wrote just prior to The Wild Hunt, (which was the one that finally wedged open the door to my career) , is actually the first in a family series. The Wild Hunt is its sequel. I was told by my then publishers, when they were sent it following their acceptance of The Wild Hunt, that the prequel novel The Coming of the Wolf, was actually of publishable standard, but not as strong as The Wild Hunt, so they preferred me to go on from TWH with fresh material. So one day, time permitting (hah!) I may well get down to editing The Coming of the Wolf and make it available online.
Below are some opening pages from my rejects. Click to enlarge.



FRONT COVER
OF MY SCHOOL
EXERCISE BOOK




















TIGER'S EYE
The first draft
of the first ever
novel.













TIGER'S EYE mark 2
This draft is after
I learned to type!













THE LEOPARD'S PAW
I called my hero Tristan
becaue I liked the name
there's no deeper
significance!























PAGE 1 OF
WOLF'S BLOOD
Ongoing family tale
connected to the first
novel.













MIDSUMMER'S GIFT
A good chunk of this
has been edited into
The Champion
















THE COMING OF
THE WOLF
PREQUEL TO
THE WILD HUNT

7 comments:

Elizabeth said...

Thank you for sharing this part of your writing journey with us. It's really interesting to me to learn how popular writers found their niche and place in people's hearts. It's also comforting to hear how you struggled with your earlier manuscripts before finally landing your first publication and I'm so glad things finally clicked because I love books and the Medieval world you bring alive for us!

Helen said...

well at least we can read your handwriting. Mine was (is) more like unreadable Enigma code! (I partly put this down to my poor eyesight, especially now I have this wretched cataract. The other part is an imagination that runs quicker than a pen can write.) Hooray for keyboards, spellcheckers and that, oh so useful, cut & paste tool.

It's good to know that even very successful writers like yourself had a tough time getting started; gives the rest of us encouragement to keep going.

I particularly thank you for pointing out the necessity for a "learning curve". Too many "wanna-be" writers send their MS off to an agent or publisher, get a rejection slip and declare said agent or publisher does not know what he/she is looking at. Several rejections later, it is still the agents and publishers who are at fault for being as short-sighted as I am. So few of these writers stop to think "Maybe there is something wrong with my writing style? Perhaps I'll get a professional critique/edit just to make sure it's them, not me."

Many new writers who I have encouraged have shown flair and talent, but have made nearly all the "novice" errors which will not get their work accepted or even looked at. Most are only too delighted to have these common errors pointed out and go away to "learn". Sadly a few disagree, but that is their choice. Being blunt though, writers who get snotty about constructive criticism will not get far as a serious writer. Part-time self-published hobbyist maybe, but nothing more. (And I am NOT knocking self-publish - but self-published authors have even more responsibility to learn, and learn fast, to ensure their books meet a marketable, sustainable standard.)

Mind you, you once pointed out too many Point Of View changes in my early work Elizabeth - and I am now paranoid about P.O.V., LOL. (Thank goodness for my editor's red pen!)

I'm not boasting, my published books are good novels, but I am well aware that I am STILL learning - my curve is very steep at times. I want to learn. I want to make it to becoming a respected decent-selling author who can write engrossing and entertaining novels for readers to enjoy.

Which I will not do while spending my time reading this blog will I? :-)

Anne Gilbert said...

Helen:

Your comment is very pertinent! Writers pretty much learn what they learn through practice. My very first attept at writing a novel was a good idea but I was trying, partly unconsciously, at the time, to imitate a sf/fantasy writer I regarded highly(and still do). After two drafts, I realized it just wouldn't work. I had too many stories within stories, to begin with. My second attempt was a little better, and I will probably go back to it, drastically revised, eventually. Each time I wrote, I got a little better, though there were things I didn't know how to do. There are things I still can't do very well, but I keep batting away at them. Though what I'm writing now is long and complicated, it at least has a controllable story arc and reasonably definable characters. And I will probably be learning as long as I'm writing. And I too, would like to thank EC for sharing her early material. I think all of us travel or have traveled the same road at various times.
Anne G

Malena said...

I am so delighted to read these examples from your earlier work. I am dying to read more. I just finished The Conquest and can't wait to get my hands on more of your work!!! I would love to read more from these earlier manuscripts, as I have become completely enthralled with the worlds you create in your novels. You paint such vivid pictures and alluring stories that I find myself even dreaming of the middle ages and your wonderfully compelling characters. I can't get enough! I haven't read one of your books that I hadn't longed for a sequel or prequel to. So please publish these, us fans are dying for more!

Christy K Robinson said...

Speaking of The Champion... it was only available as a (ahem!) previously-enjoyed book on Amazon-US. (Probably smuggled into the States by Canadians with excellent taste in fiction.) I ordered it last week, and today my mailbox had a little bit of joy, deathless prose and all. :)

Vanessa said...

That was a great post. I just graduated from university with a BA in history. Now I am puzzled as to what I want to do. I know that I want to take up writing again. I used to write stories so easily as a teen, but now I just cannot sit and write the way I used to. One of my last assignments at uni was a short historical fiction piece, which I am proud to say wowed the teacher (and my mom) and earned me my first A+ on a term paper at university (the professors are tough in the history department in comparison to those in the classics). She even wants to use it as an example to future students. (hee hee) This has given me a boost of confidence that I certainly needed.

I was wondering though, how do you go about starting a book? Do you make an outline or have a general idea in your head? How much research do you do before hand, or do you research as you go? Or maybe you are such an expert now in the Middle Ages that you do not have to do much research?

There is also the problem of experience. I feel that since I am young and have never been truly in love that it would be hard to write about that and other things. Do you think life experience is necessary to write a good and believable novel?

Anyway, I know I will probably have a long way to go before I get a novel published. Two of my short stories were published as a teen, but in very obscure publications. I have to figure out what to do for a living now, because I can't live on writing. Especially since I have not even started yet, hee hee.

catdownunder said...

I wish I could see some of the things I wrote at that age! (My mother threw them all out and told me "One day you will thank me for doing it." I do not.)
Thanks for sharing your journey though. I always find other people's writing journeys fascinating.