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.