You just need to be Extremely Patient. In the Ungodly Long-Term sense.
I have this middle-grade historical fiction novel about Joan of Arc that I’ve been working on for what feels like forever. I researched for a year and a half. Towards the end of that research process, I simultaneously wrote the first draft in a couple months. Then I rewrote it and extended it from its original 75-page form to a more genre-appropriate length of 113-pages, again requiring a few months effort. Since then, I’ve set it aside, reread it, edited it, rewrote and rearranged chapters several times. After each really serious overhaul I consider it strikingly flawless and take a break to type up a few query letters.
Let me just tell you, my query letter must be beast because it gets some good responses. A few agents were interested. But after reading the first few chapters–or even the whole thing–everyone inevitably says “no thanks.” I don’t take it too personally. I know that many successful authors have gotten hundreds of rejection letters, to the point that they could wallpaper their living rooms with them. I celebrate the small victories: I’ve gotten three “good” rejection letters. However, the most recent rejection letter made me think about my manuscript a little differently. It made me reconsider my entire querying process.
The agent claimed that it was “beautifully written,” but that they “had not connected to the story as deeply as they had hoped.” Vague, yes. But it gave me pause. Is my story really not engaging? Is it even interesting?
“Maybe I should just rewrite the whole thing again,” I said, presenting my woes to my mom.
“But I love the way it’s written,” she insisted. “I don’t understand what everyone’s complaining about.” (Thanks Mom).
I accepted the cup of tea she offered. “Everybody thinks the words are pretty–they like the presentation–but apparently I suck at the storytelling part. My sentences are well-constructed, but they don’t make readers care about the plot or the characters.”
“Just try a different agent. Somebody else will love it as much as I do.”
It’s not that I’m giving up. It’s just that, well, maybe my book isn’t good enough yet. And spending all this time and effort sending out query letters should rather be focused upon an up-close-and-personal manuscript evaluation. But I’ve done that before, and apparently it hasn’t been a serious enough intervention. How to I change the way I approach the next edit so that this time it finally makes my manuscript worthy of an agent’s attention?
I brainstormed about this and came up with nothing.
Then I went on vacation.
And listened to The Sherlockian on iPod audio-loan from my local library (I love that the library lets me do that now!!!! Continue to support the Bucks County Library System!) Maybe it’s because I haven’t read a historical fiction novel in quite awhile. Maybe it’s because I haven’t been able to find a good historical fiction novel in forever. But this one was eloquent and organized; the characters multi-faceted and the mystery riveting.
I realized it was much better than my manuscript. Obviously, my manuscript needs to take some lessons and beef up on its literary skills. Particularly the fiction part. Upon hearing the Author’s Note, for The Sherlockian, and learning how much was completely made up, I was shocked. Very little in my novel is made up. In fact, even Joan’s daily activities in the Middle Ages is straight out of some research books that I read about what a female child would do during the time period. Every major event is documented in The Trial of Joan of Arc. It makes the whole manuscript seem…thin, like it’s on a diet or something. I am coming to realize that there would be absolutely no harm in fabricating a few more discussions, family disputes, and minor events as long as I stay true to Joan’s character and stay within the possibilities of the era. It would help flesh her out a little more and provide some more connective tissue to the story arc.
It might be because I was a History and Creative Writing dual major. The history department burned the importance of historical accuracy into me to the point that I was hesitant to fictionalize enough in my Creative Writing project. Now it just needs a little more fiction added to the mix too.
Don’t get me wrong, I am SO GLAD about everything I learned about writing and research in the history department. I think it’s important that my manuscript–that all historical fiction–has historical integrity. In my opinion, historical fiction–especially for younger readers–has the responsibility to give an honest presentation because, whether you like it or not, historical fiction teaches readers. Even if it’s only through the osmosis of setting.
Graham Moore, author of The Sherlockian, offers further input to the discussion of the ethics of writing historical fiction, if you’re interested. I feel that it also kind of applies to the ethics of memoir writing, which has been undergoing some intense abuse recently from both the deceptive author and outraged media camps. What do you think? Where is the line dividing the appropriate amount of fictionalization and the inappropriate amount?
Even if your book or short story doesn’t occur back in time, some recommend that you still consider playing with the setting.