Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Okay, I Finally Get It

I don't usually learn the hard way. But the tenacity needed by a writer these days seems to have dulled my previously incisive perception. Or it's simply true that even an editor needs an editor...

As partially chronicled here, although I hit a sweet spot after a year of writing, I had a terrible time figuring out how to start Seven Noble Knights in a way that would draw readers in and do justice to the rest of the story. The version I debuted at the Muse conference session was already the fourth or fifth complete rewrite, so along with the shock, I felt disappointed I wasn't a little closer to right after all that thinking and rethinking and redoing.

Here are the latest facts: I sent the best query letter I could come up with to 144 literary agents. I never dreamed I'd find that many in the first place, much less tap all of them! A few have yet to get back to me, but my record for agents requesting to see the full manuscript stands at a fraction of a percent. I felt a tad like the man with the raised arms in the picture above: those are the heads of his sons being presented to him. (It's an illustration from a nineteenth-century Spanish pulp version of the Seven Noble Knights story: more on that later.)

The most gut-wrenching experience involved my sending a chapter from Part II as a sample. The agent enthusiastically requested to see the entire manuscript. A disturbing silence followed, to be capped off by a severe disappointment when she declined to move forward.

I thought I might have better luck with publishers who accept submissions directly from authors, and while tweaking the query letter for suitability to this new audience, I had something of an epiphany: my synopsis starts at the wedding, my trailer starts at the wedding, the medieval sources I drew from start at the wedding. The only thing that does not start at the wedding is, in fact, Seven Noble Knights, the novel itself.

The problems with the beginning of what is, after all, my first novel, run much deeper than I could have imagined.

How had I gone so far wrong? Why did it take me so long to see it? Shouldn't I have realized something was awry when the agent loved the chapter from Part II and rejected Part I, even knowing that Part II was coming?

Simultaneously with this reeling, I began to forge a new plan. I consulted with Kim Rendfeld, author of two excellent historical novels, refined the plan, and am now following it.

I'm deleting Chapters 2 and 3 and rewriting the important material from young Gonzalo's point of view. This should pick the pace up significantly and reduce confusion as to who the reader is supposed to root for. It will also provide opportunities to develop male egos and make for a convincing Chapter 4, the bloody wedding.

Chapter 4 will become Chapter 3 and will be quite a bit jazzier after the new Chapter 2, but also in its own right with planned additional emotional resonance.

Chapter 5, currently from the point of view of Doña Lambra, will be cut down and redrawn from the point of view of Justa, the long-suffering servant. Chapter 6 will be rewritten. It may be from Gonzalo's point of view to increase reader sympathy, or I may decide to integrate it into Chapter 5 (now Chapter 4) and keep it from Justa's perspective.

Extreme changes will take place in one third of all the chapters in Part I.

Since I'm juggling two other writing projects, taking a class for six weeks, working ongoing editing/publishing projects, and working a full time job, these changes may take a while. Submissions are on hold so I can present the first part of the novel knowing it's the best thing since the printing press. Please bear with me.

In the meantime, that Spanish pulp novel is sure to make another appearance!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Unusual Historicals: The Cantigas de Santa Maria

Today at Unusual Historicals I get to share with you the medieval phenomenon that occupied my every waking moment for three years, all told: the Cantigas de Santa Maria. This unique collection of songs and artwork is the single most influential reason I became a medievalist. I hope you can glimpse why there's so much to love about these thirteenth-century songs. Enjoy!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

A Glimpse into the Life of My Hero

Imagine for a moment that you are Mudarra González. You’ve just come of age, having been raised in tenth-century Medina Azahara among splendor the world hasn’t seen for a thousand years. You’ve met Christian travelers before, but they all seemed kind of dumb to you because they walk your palace city with mouths agape. Now you’re traveling in Christian lands, having to interact intimately with Christians for the first time, and a woman who claims to be your new mother takes you across an icy bridge to a small stone chapel, the likes of which you never imagined you’d see inside.

It’s as dark as night, with only a few candles before the altars and tiny windows letting the smallest bit of winter light in. A priest comes from some dark corner to greet your “mother” briefly before drawing back a curtain.

In the gloom, you can make out the shapes of a painting very much like this one:

I went to the local art museum this weekend. The place is impressive in the context of this area, and only makes sense when you consider that it was established during the city’s industrial heyday. It holds remarkable treasures from every corner of the globe. Of course, I’m partial to the medieval galleries. They even transported a chapter house and reassembled it just off the main atrium, complete with medieval stained glass windows. (My fondest hope is to make a presentation of Seven Noble Knights in that setting once it’s published.)

The painting above resides in the darkest gallery in the building. When I came upon it, I felt as if I had been transported into my own novel!

It’s a Catalan altar frontal from the late eleventh century (about 100 years in the future of Seven Noble Knights). It shows the ascension of Jesus, while in Seven Noble Knights I had imagined a dynamic portrait of a "Moor-slaying" saint. But the colors, the cartoonish outlines, and the presence of crosses and gesturing hands are exactly what I had in mind. Mudarra finds the red and yellow garish, but I recognize these shades as the favorites in northern Spain for hundreds of years. The serious expressions and outstretched hands are the dramatic expressions of a visual story, meant to instruct anyone, whether or not they could read, whether or not they’d had previous instruction.

I wanted to take this piece of art with me because it accomplishes in an instant what I’m attempting to do with more than 100,000 words: it brings anyone who sees it close enough to my characters to imagine themselves in their shoes.

Friday, August 22, 2014


Burgos gets ready for the wedding of the tenth century
In tenth-century Spain, a brave Christian knight—the youngest of the seven noble knights of Lara—singlehandedly lifts a siege, but it is his uncle who is rewarded with a bride. Lambra, the beautiful young noblewoman in question, accepts the marriage out of obligation, but her humiliation truly begins when her powerful new nephew accidentally kills her adored cousin right before her eyes.
Desperate for revenge, Lambra sends her page to hurl a blood-soaked cucumber at her nephew. While his brothers laugh off the incident, the youngest nephew becomes enraged because he understands that the cucumber symbolizes a dagger in his heart. He slays the page who threw the vegetable.
In retaliation, Lambra’s husband sends the nephews’ father, Gonzalo, to Muslim Córdoba with his own death warrant, then leads the nephews into a military ambush, where they struggle valiantly for two days, but ultimately perish.
Their heads arrive in Córdoba, where Gonzalo must identify all seven of his sons. The chamberlain, taking pity on Gonzalo, sends his stunning sister to comfort him, and love blooms in prison. When Gonzalo is released, he returns to his home and his wife, leaving the chamberlain’s sister pregnant with his last son and half a ring by which to identify him.
Fifteen years later, the son, Mudarra, has grown up to be a warrior. His mother explains that he must take the half ring and go to his father. Uneasy, but curious, Mudarra sets off with three hundred soldiers and a guide who explains that Mudarra’s fate is sealed: he must kill Lambra’s husband to take revenge for the evil he wrought against his father and the brothers Mudarra never knew.
Mudarra is welcomed with great joy. He promises revenge for his lost brothers, although in the new environment he feels like an outsider. When everyone else heads to the capital, Mudarra detours to Lambra’s estate, where he meets and falls in love with her daughter. He wonders what the revenge has to do with him, but Mudarra’s guide convinces him to return and fulfill his fate. Lambra’s daughter finds out that Mudarra intends to kill her father and she runs home, distraught.
After a weeks-long chase, Mudarra and Gonzalo corner Lambra’s husband and meet on the battlefield. Mudarra recognizes his beloved in Lambra’s husband’s face, but with the help of the ghosts of his half brothers, he defeats his foe and brings him to Burgos for execution.
Lambra’s husband dies under a hail of projectiles. Mudarra refuses to watch the execution of his beloved’s father and is too overwhelmed with his failures to enjoy his successful revenge. Hope emerges again when Lambra comes to the capital with her daughter and maid to ask the Count of Castile for mercy. When the count turns her away, Mudarra follows the women and speaks with Lambra’s daughter when no one else sees. She admits she loves Mudarra, and he plans to run away with her, but one day, he wakes to find that Lambra’s daughter and the maid have fled.
Mudarra takes their escape as a mandate to carry out the last part of his predestined revenge. He brings Lambra to be burned at the stake, where he becomes disgusted and alienated. He slips away and heads in the direction he believes Lambra’s daughter has gone.

Feel free to let me know whether this description makes you want to read the book! And if it does, check out the trailer with amazing drawings and music.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Literary Idol Gets Medieval

This is an accurate depiction of what happened to Seven Noble Knights
at Literary Idol. Skewered. (Art by Ayal Pinkus)
As I've described on my author blog, in May I attended The Muse & the Marketplace conference in Boston, and learned a whole heck of a lot at a session called Literary Idol.

In that session, three literary agents and one editor from a highly regarded literary press acted as the judges. Steve Almond, author, “randomly” selected first pages of books to read aloud to the audience and judges. Imagining that the samples were part of a query, whenever the judges heard something that would make them stop reading, they raised their hand. If two hands went up, Steve stopped reading and the hand-raisers explained where the piece went wrong for them.

Literary Idol involved a little forethought: I had to format and print out the first page of Seven Noble Knights. I’d signed up for this session because it seemed like an unparalleled opportunity to finally learn what might be behind all those 100+ agent rejections and non-responses. As the day drew near, of course, I wondered if I was going to be able to handle the abject terror such judgment might cause to well up in anyone.

Because so many writers attended the session, there was no guarantee that my sample of Seven Noble Knights would be read. But it was. I knew it was coming when Steve announced the genre: historical fiction. Although I maintained my outward cool, my heart began to pound so loudly, I was sure someone would notice and take me straight to Mass General.

Spoiler alert: my sample caused two agents to raise their hands. This is how long Steve Almond read before they did so:

Gonzalo González peered between the wild grasses where once had grown someone’s grain. The stone walls of Zamora began to show their golden color while the stars faded overhead. As many as three hundred Moorish invaders had set up their tents and built wooden war machines daringly close to the main gate, which remained barricaded.

That's it. Three sentences. I didn't even make it to the second paragraph. I don't recall whether any other samples got objections that quickly, so, hmm, I was the best at something! 

The agents who raised their hands used words like "boring," "overwhelming," and "stilted." Ouch! I continued to scribble my notes as if I weren't dying inside. My brain has mercifully forgotten most of the attempts made at a running joke using the phrase "grains and gates." The overall lesson was that it was a mistake to put the historical detail before character development. "Tell the small story first," Steve Almond, master of pithy writing advice, said.

Okay, I get that. Now. 

Here I am in an impotent rage. (It's really Doña Lambra from
  Seven Noble Knights. Art by Ayal Pinkus.
In the panic that lasted for weeks after the session, I rationalized: neither of the agents who raised their hands reads historical fiction, so what can they know about it? The details I put in the first paragraph weren't part of some bigger story, they were directly affecting the character right now. I thought there was no way the idea of three hundred soldiers with their war machines could fail to strike terror into the hearts of readers, the kind of terror that makes them keep reading. I couldn't tell how else in the world I could develop the character and start the story in medias res without explaining exactly where he was and what he was up against. Informational equity, remember? I'd had this beginning approved by my writers group; a historical fiction author and amazing editor; and none other than Kristen Lamb, a disciple of Les Edgerton, among her other amazing credentials. 

The rationalization gave way to that other writerly extreme, the belief that I could never tell a story anyone would want to read and I should quit trying. Normally I consider myself more stable than such mood swings. The range of emotions is a sign that I care about Seven Noble Knights, my most promising baby.

My deep conviction that this story is worth telling won out. It's full of awesome characters and moments. What I most need to do is get the reader on board so they make it to all those good parts. All the artistry in the world is useless unless someone can enjoy it. 

So I asked that historical novelist/editor and got some awesome feedback: get the characters talking. I would have thought of it myself if it hadn't been my own writing I was trying to edit. So I moved the parts around and got more dialog in the beginning, and along the way, I challenged myself to get a lot more information across by showing instead of telling. I shared the results with my writers group as well as the author/editor. 

The writers group folks were practically fresh readers because it had been so long since they'd seen any version of the book at all. One particularly astute writer reported that the situation was confusing. Zounds! I had edited too much! The clarity was gone.

I went to work again, doing my darnedest to fit all the necessary facts in with some kind of flair, agonizing over word choice, and mending all the holes I could find (with further help from my beta readers).

Here is the latest rendition of the beginning of Seven Noble Knights:

Gonzalo González peered between the wild grasses where once had grown someone’s grain. He had lain in the dampness for so long that his boiled leather back plate and metal mail were beginning to weigh him down. He measured each fingerwidth of sunlight that revealed the golden stone walls of Zamora before him while the stars faded overhead. He had long since lost his sense of amazement at the Moors’ audacity. Three hundred of them had set up their wooden war machines before the city’s main gate, which remained barricaded.

He turned his face to see his uncle through the dewy stalks and whispered. “Why can’t we charge the Moors now, while they’re still asleep in their tents?”

Whatcha think? Would you keep reading? Please let me know.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Meet My Main Character: Mudarra

Kim Rendfeld, one of my favorite authors (The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar is coming August 28!) tagged me in the Meet My Main Character Blog Hop. I’m taking the opportunity to introduce the point of view character from my current work-in-progress, the final book in the Providence Trilogy, at my author blog

Here, meet Mudarra.

One idea of what Mudarra might look like.
1) What is the name of your character? Is he fictional or a historic person?

Mudarra González ibn Zaida is a fictional character with a lot of history. He’s the talented but reluctant hero who rises up in the second part of Seven Noble Knights, which is based on the lost medieval epic poem, Los siete infantes de Lara. The first part of the story includes some verifiable historic characters, such as the Count of Castile, García Fernández, and the members of his court, Gonzalo Gustioz and his wife Sancha (Prollina in the history books). The inciting incident also has a whiff of truth to it. It leads to such widespread destruction that in the second part of the story, no historical person remains to carry on the cause and complete the revenge. Because a sense of eye-for-an-eye justice was so important to medieval storytellers, they resorted to making up a character from (semi-)plausible circumstances in order to deliver the ending their audience craved. Mudarra is that semi-plausible hero.

In the medieval epic, Mudarra is one-dimensional, so it has been my pleasurable task to make him complex and sympathetic. In the end, his doubts and decisions cast new light on all the events of the first part and make it, I hope, worthwhile and enjoyable.

2) When and where is the story set?

It might have been interesting to try and transfer the characters and worldview to another time period, but because I love medieval Spain so much, I researched what the most likely year for the inciting incident was in real life, and settled on 974. I’ve since done more research, and that date could be a tad too early, but in planning the sequel, it actually works better for the story than a more accurate historical date would have.

In 974, Castile was not yet the dominant kingdom on the Iberian Peninsula. In fact, it wasn’t a kingdom at all. The most powerful earthly authority was the count, and technically he owed allegiance to the Kingdom of León. Other kingdoms battled for dominance in the north at the same time that they maintained complex, on-again, off-again diplomatic/warring relationships with al-Andalus, the unified Muslim caliphate that occupied more than half the peninsula in the south.

3) What should we know about him?

Mudarra grows up in the Andalusian capital, far from the Christian lands he’ll have to take a vested interest in during the course of the second part of Seven Noble Knights. Although intensely trained in the arts of war from both the theoretical and the practical standpoint, his life of sensuality, peace and privilege has not prepared him for the trials that await in the barbaric north.

4) What is the main conflict? What messes up his life?

The overarching conflict in the second part is the feud that started in the first, which insinuates itself into Mudarra’s idyllic life. He must reconcile whether or not to answer the call to revenge with his own sense of right and wrong, and puzzle over exactly how these decade-old events have affected his life.

The conflict becomes intolerably complicated when Mudarra meets the daughter of his supposed enemy and falls head over heels in love with her.

5) What is the personal goal of the character?

Once he meets Blanca Flor, Mudarra’s only real goal is to be with her. His life has been turned upside down, and he’d like to start over again with his true love by his side. He needs constant reminders of his obligation, what should be his goal, to take revenge against her family. It’s all tremendously confusing for him. In the end, only one of these goals is accomplished, and I’m working out how he’ll overcome obstacles to meet the other one in the sequel.

6) Is there a working title for this novel, and can we read more about it?

Seven Noble Knights is the second version of the title that I’ve come up with, and more changes may be in store. You can read much more about it and how I came to write it and complete it here and at my main blog.

7) When can we expect the book to be published?

If it were up to me, it would have been published already. I’m currently making the painful decision not to pursue literary agents any longer. This book always belonged at a small press, I think, so it’s now a matter of finding a press and an editor who believes in the book almost as much as I do. I’m not sure how long it will take to find that needle-in-haystack, but stay tuned for updates.

Be sure to check out these other historical authors who’ve already introduced their main characters, all in their own special way:

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Characters: Long-Suffering Justa

This is the artist's rendition of Doña Lambra.
Justa looks a lot like her, but she never gets to throw a fit. 
Justa is one of the characters I added to the mix from the original epic story I based Seven Noble Knights on. In the old draft of the story that no one will ever see, Justa was conceived as a snarky maid for Doña Lambra, a narrator and a commentator on the story.

When I started over, I decided Doña Lambra was negative enough. She didn't need a snarky sidekick. So Justa became a sweet girl who longs for a normal life, but her ties to Lambra won't permit the freedom to pursue it. She took on more of the characteristics associated with her name, which has to do with fairness or justice, and then it turned out that she needed a snarky foil. That sassy role is filled by Gotina, a minor character.

Partly because my critique group really liked her character, and partly because it fit brilliantly into the plot, Justa turned into a major character with a fairly complex arc. If I get to write a sequel to Seven Noble Knights, it will focus largely on Justa, the decisions she makes before and after Seven Noble Knights comes to a close, and their ramifications.

She was born into a family of the minor nobility the same year as Lambra, and she looks enough like her that they could be sisters. In Part II of Seven Noble Knights, our hero Mudarra is afraid she might be Doña Lambra when he first meets Justa. She comes into Lambra's household as a foster child when her parents are killed in a border raid, and lives as if she were Lambra's sister until Lambra's parents are killed. From that moment on, Lambra treats Justa as her personal servant, and Justa takes it because she has nowhere else to go. The ties created when Lambra's family took her in are not easily broken, but everyone has their breaking point. When Justa finds hers, the story comes to an end.

It's a pretty important role for someone who started out as a snarky maid.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Snip, Snip

I was seriously considering entering Seven Noble Knights in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. When I first heard about the award, I regretted not having a novel to submit. Last year, Seven Noble Knights was too freshly finished. No way was it ready for submission of any kind, much less a brutal contest.

The thing was, the Amazon contest caps the allowable word count at 125,000. What kind of random number is that? Seven Noble Knights, after the significant cuts I made over the last several months, sat at 129,000.

Maybe 4000 words isn't so much in an epic novel, I thought, and started by looking for the silly things writers do. First plan for excision: most adverbs. If you modify a verb, it's often just the wrong verb to begin with! So I dove in.

It took four days of gruesome, shrieking effort.

But now at least half the adverbs I had are gone. It had to have strengthened the writing. It also got rid of one thousand words.

Three thousand words short.

So I looked at the official rules again, just to make sure, and yes, they're firm on 125,000.

What other silly rules were there? The dealbreaker for me was that if you win the prize, you can't negotiate the contract. You just have to sign over whatever rights they want for themselves. Pretty suspicious. If, on the other hand, you don't win, they may offer you a contract and you can negotiate. It just felt weird to enter a contest in which I would hope I didn't win. So after all this time thinking of the Amazon award as a possible goal or learning experience, I won't be doing it.

I'm glad those thousand words have been removed. It gave me a chance to finesse some sentences and to revisit the entire novel, seeing more clearly what its strengths are.

The picture celebrates that cutting as well as my first civilized haircut. When I first got to North Carolina, I got a haircut, and was unhappy with my hair ever after. So I was determined to have a New England haircut that solved some of the problems or at least got rid of some layers, as soon as possible. It looks similar to my profile photo again, so I think I've found the haircut I belong to as well as the place. Now I just need to find the right home for Seven Noble Knights!

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

New Year's Post

2014 has been hectic for me as I moved and look for a job. But I never set Seven Noble Knights entirely aside and will have great blogs again in February.

Today I have a post up at Unusual Historicals that retraces the possible geography of a special day in the life of Alfonso X, el Sabio, in Sevilla. Alfonso X gave the mandate to write the history from which I take the story of the Seven Noble Knights (among many other accomplishments). Sevilla was Alfonso's favorite city after its reconquest, and is mine now, in spite of loyalties spread all over the Iberian Peninsula. I've included lots of pictures and I hope it's a fun and informative experience. Check it out if you like Spain and/or the Middle Ages!