The Seductive Trap of the Historical Novel

Or, how to kill off your historical novel before you write a word.

I’m working with two writers on their historical novels, and both — at this stage of their development — are hobbled by a classic (common) flaw in the design of the story.

That is: they have history in play, but they have no compelling CORE DRAMATIC STORY SPINE in play.

Both stories are “about” the history itself — setting, politics, social dynamics — rather than the requisite story arc of a hero with a problem/need, mounting a quest (mission) to solve that problem or meet that need, with something/someone opposing them, with something at stake, showing us the  hero DOING SOMETHING to resolve it all.

With this missing, what remains is, ironically, the very thing that draws the writer to this tapestry in the first place: historical and social and political ambiance.  A tour of the history.  A chronicle of a character’s experience within that history… but without it meaning much of anything.

Which isn’t enough.

Go to Amazon and read the editorial description of The Great Gatsby.

Notice how this focuses and raves about the lavish parties, the backstory, the social strata, the hubris of wealth, the utter greatness of it all… all of which is merely ambiance.

But when you read the book or watch the film, look more closely. 

There is a story framed by all that… a PLOT.  One with a hero and a villain and stakes (Daisy’s love), all converging with dramatic escalation and emotional resonance.

Those last things are what these two novels — and so many historical stories written by authors who are seduced and misled by reviews just like the one on Amazon — are lacking.

As writers, we need to understand more about storytelling than readers ever will. 

Both of these writers submitted their story plans to me for analysis.  After the process, both recognized the opportunity at hand.  So this is good, they get it now.

One, however, tried to explain the plan in response to my critical analysis, and in doing so focused once again on all those issues of ambiance, rather than the absence of a plot rendered compelling because of the stakes (both of which were largely MIA in her story).

A plot is the engine of story.  Her response was like explaining that, while there is no engine, the wheels and the upholstery are really, really cool.

Which misses the entire point.

So I thought I’d share my response to her relative to this follow- up/push-back document, which I have genericized here.

There are principles here to be absorbed.  I hope they help.

****

To the author:

This entire storytelling proposition consists of two realms of “raw material.” One is the actual story premise itself, the other is execution. In both realms, the “outcome” is always just someone’s opinion, though on the latter (execution) it is less negotiable and more easily predictable.

It is on the first point where the room divides. One person’s great story idea is another’s yawn.

That’s all over the place, some love literary novels, other can’t read them and prefer cozy mysteries or graphic horror stories or even erotica. Which of them is “wrong?” That’s not the proper question, of course, but it seems to be such when a writer pitches a story, something they think is absolutely fascinating and rich in potential, and the responder (agent, editor, story coach, and ultimate readers) go “not my cup of tea,” or “didn’t really grab me,” or whatever.

And thus, stories are accepted or rejected, successful or forgotten. Agents and editors “accept” stories all the time that they think will be appealing, and readers will stay away in droves, because they don’t agree. We haven’t broken that code.

In my case, in my role, I try not to gauge anything at all by “how I like it.” Rather, I evaluate more like an engineer assessing a blueprint or a worksite for the raw beams of a structure, and ultimately, the viability of a finished structure.

The engineer doesn’t have to “like” a house or a building to deem it finished, or worthy in terms of viability. That’s not the job. Not my job, either. I’m here to look INSIDE the story, at the core bones of it, and assess the nature of those building blocks (this is what I do in my less expensive story evaluations). But in doing so, I can look at the specific, separate items and assess their strength, both alone and in relation to the others (when they become a sum seeking to be a whole in excess of the parts.)

Your story obviously really appeals to you.

I’m betting you’ve told others about it – “I want to tell the story of my Hero and what happened to him during the war when the Russians took over his country,” and there are some cool elements there, a sailor picked up at sea, an affair, some nasty paranoid Russians…” and your listener goes, “wow, that sounds like a great story! It’d make a great novel!”

Thing is, a great novel requires MUCH more than a pile of cool elements.

From what I remember, it’s basically a true story… which immediately can become problematic. Because you feel the need to tell it “like it happened.” But… this is a competitive issue, as well.

Yes, you certainly can write “what happened.” And what happened is interesting, to some extent. But in a competitive market, other benchmarks and criteria apply. And that’s where your story, as conceived and assembled, becomes suspect.

In my opinion, the story lacks the “physics” required to compete for a publisher. Those physics include:

– a compelling premise that becomes a story landscape for a hero’s journey;
– an escalating sense of dramatic tension arising from conflict;
– strategic pacing;
– an empathetic journey for a hero/protagonist, that will cause the reader to ROOT FOR their desired outcome (or problem solving), with an antagonist (villain or negative force) blocking their path;
– delivering a vicarious journey to the reader (something they can’t experience for themselves, which all historical novels seek to create)
– an effective narrative strategy.

In other words… in summary… you lack a compelling PLOT.

Thing is, you can do ALL of these, and still come up short. But it is the SUM of these that matters, and even though the parts may look good at first, when they combine they are not as compelling as they need to be.

It would like someone writing a novel about the childhood of someone like, say, Cher. Cher is famous. Cher’s fans will care. Nobody else will. UNLESS and UNTIL that story leverages the above list to generate a story they respond to emotionally.

In your case, your story has basic flaws, even prior to Square 1.

You lack a compelling hero. Hero isn’t heroic (and even if he is heroic in the past, that doesn’t matter, not a bit, in the foreground story). In fact, he’s by nature not someone we root for, or even like (not a necessity by any means, but it can help if called for). Because… you don’t give him a QUEST with a specific goal, something that has stakes.

He’s trying to find the guy… but why ? Toward what end?  You never tell us.

“But,” you might say, “he does have a goal, he’s trying to find McGuffin (a character who becomes “the prize” and the source of STAKES in the story; in “The Davinci Code” the McGuffin was the Holy Grail, which turned out to be… well, you already know that surprise ending)!”

Sure… but who is McGuffin? We don’t know. He’s just a guy he picks up at sea. Then he disappears.

Bottom line: nothing is RIDING ON Hero finding him.

What if he does find him, what then? Nothing. Hero isn’t going to save him, Hero isn’t going to change everything. So there are no stakes attached to Hero finding McGuffin.

Which leaves your story as simply this: a guy finds a guy, and then loses the guy… we watch all that happen, without ever really knowing or, more importantly, FEELING what this means, and thus, why we should care.

Everything depends on stakes.

Without them, a story becomes a “chronicle” or a documentary of a character’s journey within the historical framework.  It becomes a frame without a picture. Which is the case here: this story is about “the stuff that happens to Hero and Hero’s wife,” set on a tapestry of this political stage at that point in history.

But… nothing happens that compels the reader to root or care. Because they aren’t known figures from history.  They aren’t player, they have no role in that history. And frankly, they aren’t sympathetic in any way. So, if what they’re doing isn’t important, and who they are doesn’t touch our hearts… why will we care?

Part of the problem, as I said, is how the book is written, as it sits how.

Your Part 1 needs a complete redesign, because you aren’t setting up a compelling CORE STORY that launches at the First Plot Point.

You may argue with that. You may say you ARE setting up a core story, and that it is compelling. But we disagree on that point. It’s not compelling because Hero has no skin in the McGuffin game, and then when the Russians suspect he’s somehow a spy, that’s thin, hard to see or believe, and becomes a chase without a prize.

Because Hero isn’t a spy.  And the Russians suspicion that he is has no merit other than paranoia.

In your synopsis you describe an ending in which neither Hero or Hero’s wife is actively, heroically involved. Hero never solves his problem, and the problem he has is, again, without depth or real meaning. The political stage becomes scenery, it is never “about” Hero seeking save someone, or change something, or improve anything at all.

It’s like a diary come to life. But the diary isn’t dramatic enough, and has no substantive stakes, to become a novel that works.

Let me put it this way: the story of “a” guy who saves “a” guy, neither of whom made a lick of difference in the war… that’s not enough of a story. Thus, whatever happens to them (affairs, unfair pursuit, etc.) doesn’t matter… enough.

If, however, Hero is “a” guy who saves “THE” guy – someone who ends up making a meaningful difference, or plays a key role, in the OUTCOME of what happened in those days in that place, then that IS a story worth telling, from a commercial outcome.

You never position either player in the story relative to STAKES. That’s a deal killer.

Even then, though, the story is still about the hero’s quest and heroism, not about his wife’s affair and his abusive nature and his alcoholism, and his blind quest to find a guy about whom he knows nothing, with no noble intentions or vision for an outcome that will change anything, and then, doesn’t end up achieving any of it, or anything at all.

That, in a nutshell, is what is wrong at the STORY PREMISE level.

There is a long list of things that are wrong at the EXECUTION level, to the extent I think you need to come at this story – a better story – from a completely new and fresh narrative strategy. Resulting a much richer, faster, compelling Part 1 that is not driven by backstory and meaningless character chit-chat and descriptions of setting and random memories and such.

All this despite your significant prose skills. You do write very well.

That said, and on the latter count, you need a lot of work and practice on scene writing.

Which begins with a clear mission for each scene that connects to a compelling core story arc. If I’m correct when I suggest that the core story arc (what your Part 1 scenes seek to set up) is, in fact, less than compelling, then the scenes are already doomed. Complicated by the fact that you over-write them – and many of them don’t serve the core story, they are side trips with the “diary” you are creating – the sum becomes something that calls for a closer look, with a view toward improving the core story (which means you need to change it), and then , a narrative strategy that better serves it, but focusing on the DRAMA instead of the backstory or the subplots, which in the current version completely smother the intended “plot” itself.

When it matters what your hero does, because there are stakes involved that touch us emotionally and intellectually, then you’ll be on point with this story.

****

If you’d like to experience this feedback process for yourself, click HERE for the concept/premise level, and HERE for the Full Story Plan program.

 

13 Comments

Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

13 Responses to The Seductive Trap of the Historical Novel

  1. MikeR

    I happen to -love- the genre called “Young-Adult Fiction.” (Yes, I come from the generation when Scholastic Books had nothing to do with Harry Potter, and therefore, I presume, still had to care about money.) I bought lots of books from Scholastic, and kept them. I also read pretty much every book, good or dreadful, in every classroom that I was stuck in.

    There was a =lot= of “historical fiction” in that genre. I guess that people felt that it was “educational” and therefore apropos. I didn’t know: I read the stuff because I loved it. Still do.

    The characterization “formula,” so to speak, in YAF, is probably “simple” … to an adult who has forgotten what it was actually like to be a kid. And I do remember that there were plenty of “dreadfuls.” But the “good” ones are stories that I still like to come back to, because they’re ALL ABOUT character. The protagonist is “in another place and time,” such that reading the book will tell you a lot about that place-and-time “as an educational side-effect,” but the critical factor is this: in a really good novel, the protagonist is “both **IN** It, and **OF** It.”

    I cannot right-now for the life of me remember the title of one of my “very favorites,” which taught me about “little squares of opium, each with Victoria’s seal.” And which, in just one of many exceptional scenes, said: “The knife was cold, too cold, and it stopped his heart at once …” You get the idea. “Damned good(!) writing,” courtesy of the educational system.

    As I am wrestling to remind myself, as I continue to work on my own “historical novel” project, every such novel takes place **IN** a particular place and time. But only the outstanding ones feature characters and situations that truly are **OF** it. Plot developments that, “strange” as they might seem to us today, are not the slightest bit strange to the characters. (Terrifying, compelling, risky … but, not strange.)

  2. Robert Jones

    I believe historical fiction writers have their own battle to wage: historian Vs. writer. One writes historical fiction because of a certain love for history, be it an event or an entire era. The historian looks at the facts with a high degree of fascination, and a basic belief that to change a single fact renders their story unbelievable within the context of history. They’ve given critics a loaded gun to shoot holes in their story by messing with reality. The writer becomes timid, or even secondary to what is already a great–if not viable–story.

    However, most history doesn’t record every fact. And much of it is biased by who is recording it, eyewitness accounts (which are never entirely credible), even political agendas that can range far and wide from the truth.

    A friend of mine was recently talking about the movie “300,” and how historically inaccurate it was. This made it seem a travesty in his eyes. I explained that the writer took history and filtered it through his perceptions and imbued it with a certain criteria based on story structure and presented it in a way he believed would make a good story…a sellable story. And yet, great chunks of what the characters do, how they live, the times they lived in, are actually quite accurate.

    History is the background, the settings on the stage of the fiction writer’s dramatic concept. If a story draws you into the time in which it is set, it is because the writer understands that era and has woven it successfully into their story. The world seems natural to the characters populating the story because it is their time. They don’t know any other. A modern story, for example, wouldn’t stop to explain to the reader what the Internet is because we all take it for granted. So backgrounds in an historical piece are presented the same way. It’s not a history lesson. And if that part/place stamped in history has its lessons to be learned, they are learned through the actions and consequences of the characters.

    It’s very hard to explain the journey of the hero, story structure, or almost any part of craft to a writer caught up in a particular realm of fascination. Whether it is history, or the the plot they believe imitates the randomness of life, people, circumstances. It’s frustrating as hell sometimes. Maybe it’s due to people’s general dislike for change. And if the facts are already written in the history books, possibly it seems easier on some level to just weave a story around what’s already been written rather than coming up with something new. I don’t know. People can be very pig-headed. We’re all guilty of being resistant to revamping an idea that seemed to please us so much when it first came to mind.

    Life is about change. Fiction writing imitates life. But one must remember even the best stories are only a semblance of life, crafted by an artisan, not reality. Otherwise you’re writing non-fiction. A painting may look photo-realistic, but it was created following criteria that has been around for a very long time–not in spite of all who sweated to master such techniques, but because those techniques are available and therefore can be learned by any who have the wear-withal to apply themselves.

    I think it’s great that so many people want to write these days. What I’m appalled by is the number of people who believe it’s easy and the same non-thinking principles that are applied to an auto-piloted lifestyle can get them a good grade or a large sum of money if their idea is just cool enough to wow the other zombies on stumbling around the shopping malls and airports on some secularized, factory stamped cruise control. Maybe a new genre will be born where none of the rules apply: Walking Deaf Fiction or WDF for short. Lord knows I’ve read some blogs that have gained an audience by allowing their readers to feel good about being absent of any and all craft knowledge as long as their story plays like a catchy tune and somehow works it’s magic on readers.

    There’s no magic pill to success in any craft. And what I really don’t understand is if it you really love to write (as many say they do) then why is it such a chore to learn the rules (dirty word there)? If it seems like too much work then chances are this isn’t right for you. Or the love is really just an infatuation. Don’t worry though, you’ll get over it if that’s the case and you won’t even recall I offended your artistic sensibilities.

    @Kerry–I believe people say what they feel comfortable saying because to ramble at length might make some feel less wise than their silence might indicate. And that’s okay. I don’t judge. We’re all here to learn. However, I would rather someone let me know I put my foot in my mouth on a given subject than to remain in the dark on that score. Or take my lack of knowledge into my writing and realize I wasn’t so wise after my story sees print. I would certainly encourage more opinions and questions. I enjoy a diverse group who is willing to discuss their POVs. Talking about them sharpens the steel of wit. Sign in under an alias if it makes you feel better and play a little.

  3. Kerry Boytzun

    @Robert. I hear ya.

    Is it heroic to remain comfortable? The story itself is about the character who jumped off the comfort wagon to blaze his own trail, of which to succeed or fail was never the point. The journey was the point. It’s not the point to get to the top of the mountain and snap a selfie. Like that matters.

    People have confused a quality of life with the technological comforts. AC, heat, and running water does not nourish the soul, and in fact watching someone else’s story via TV or other medias won’t do the job.

    People have been conditioned through school that being wrong is bad. Making mistakes is the only way to discover the right way to do something, and that changes as the context changes. We live in a world where most of us are terrified to do anything wrong so we have become obedient cattle. And look at how just wrong a world we have created as a result of looking the other way.

    A hero becomes heroic only by changing her behavior from what was the usual to now the unusual, the uncomfortable. Talking–communicating one’s thoughts is the most risky behavior out there, as it’s the easiest way to get slammed by the backseat driving trolls–as in Amazon reviews. Trolls are pretty much an indication you are off the beaten track and may be onto a new adventure. But sometimes good advice can sound like a troll. That’s the fun of making your own decisions.

    Back to what Larry was writing about, I recall a post I think Larry made about the movie, Titanic, whereby everyone knew the ship was a goner before the movie started. But the movie was a huge success due to the love story on it. Note that the love story didn’t have a happy mountain peak to stand on and snap a selfie. The point was the journey and the heroism on the couple to make the love happen–as brief as it did.

    How many life experiences have you (all of us) squandered that, with a little heroism, would have made a very interesting and possibly a soul fulfilling experience? Tons most likely. It takes a lot of guts and money to be lost, to be chasing such experiences. I know. I’ve lost a ton. And I speak my mind as if I don’t, I’ll never learn if I was right or just a whackjob. Only the experience will tell you that. Keeping it to yourself is like never buying the winning horse race ticket. It’s only a wish.

    At the end of your life, are you going to pat yourself on the back with all the things you avoided so you were the obedient, collective, bit-part bystander of life? Or are you going to relish in the risks that you took, regardless of whether or not you won, and what it made of you, your character.

    Were you heroic? Or not?

    Real life is risk you take. Back seats are for tourists. The story is about the heroic journey that risked the disfavor of the trolls who lacked the guts to do something authentic.

  4. I’m a history writer. And you just saved my day, Larry. After reading this, I feel I’m much better than I thought with my story. Thank you!

  5. While I love the ambience in a nice restaurant, they had darn well better bring me some food or I’m outta there. And NOT tipping.

    I love the ambience of a spy story, a historical mystery, a religious thriller. But please O please O please don’t confuse “truth” with a story. Truth is the greatest storykiller of all time.

  6. The other way around can be a problem too. My book is a “historical fantasy”. It is told in a particular historical setting, but is devoid of any reference to historical events. My focus very much was the story, the plot, the quest, the stakes, the nemesis and the inner demons – all that good stuff. And the few people who have bought and read it, including people I don’t know, have said I did that well. But the setting itself may not be all that appealing, mostly because it has been used and abused to a pulp. I did a ton of research to make sure it was authentic, even though I bring together certain elements that in reality were hundreds of years apart. But, no matter how I slice or dice it, I think the setting probably turns readers away before they even think of checking out the story.

    Make the story compelling first, absolutely. But I have to wonder if a good story can be killed by a poor choice of historical setting.

  7. Daniel

    @ Joel-I love your restaurant comparison-totally agree with you. They should serve something better than I can make at home as well.

    I substituted any genre for the word’ historical’ when reading this blog post. Reminds me that my own paranormal/crime novel can’t simply rely on scary ghosts, or clever case solving twists, without a solid story core of meat and bones that the ready can get nourishment from and feel full by the end.

  8. @ Kerry

    Titanic is a great example. The setting provides a lot of tension to the story, in an Alfred Hitchcock way. We know the ship is going down, but the characters don’t, so it is awfully uncomfortable for the viewer and we hold our breath to see the resolution. But if Kate and Leo weren’t on that ship, there would be no compelling reason to keep watching. It would simply be another documentary about the Titanic hitting an iceberg. Nothing new there.

    The setting adds to the plot beautifully, but the story still requires a plot.

    Great post, Larry.

  9. Kerry Boytzun

    @Michael regarding choice of historical setting affecting popularity of book.

    Definitely but can one select something historical that turns off most people or just a bit? I don’t have an answer for that. Hollywood loves to make “historical” movies that indoctrinate the user (hopefully) that the movie is factual as in who is to blame and all that. One group will love it and the other won’t.

    Real research of historical incidents reveals that the blame for such incidents was another villain altogether. The question is would such a book be popular if it flies in the face of “official fact”? Maybe yes, and maybe no. To what degree does it challenge the status quo? Would it be popular today to learn that yesterday’s event was staged and inauthentic per official education of history?

    Case in point is the author, Tim Powers. Powers will select an area of history and look for details that either exist, or don’t, but the less known details provide the canvas for the story (at least for the characters). Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but as I’ve read most of his work, I’d say that Story Structure issues were the cause. Sometimes trying to fit the story into the historical path can ruin the story and vice-versa.

    http://www.theworksoftimpowers.com/

    Tim’s best work for me (and award winning) was: The Anubis Gates; Last Call. The Anubis Gates I’ve read more than once. Both are highlhy recommended. ***Just realized that Powers has written an eighty page novella tieing into the Anubis Gates called Nobody’s Home.

    An example of a popular (and profitable) historical movie with no story was the recent Lincoln 2012 movie. Expensive, great acting, and I was bored to tears. Also realize that I’m from Western Canada and am not “ingrained” into the US Civil War, at least the official rendering of it. That may make me not a candidate for it. However, to me, creating a story where the ending is known–I lose interest. I prefer not knowing the outcome…a surprise. For me, that’s fiction.

    But…popularity can help drive interest in a story. That’s why I recommend to look for world/social issues that are charged, and write a story amongsit it. Vaccines, adoptions, professional sports relationships, banking gone wild,–the list is endless. The TV series “House of Cards” attracts people based upon the “bad guy in power” motif.

    Non-fictional research of a historical event–the surprises come out during the story as you learn that the players weren’t as they appeared and were working for other sides and organizations. Thus the big picture and scenes take on a different meaning. **Some movies do this well like “The Sting” whereby you had to watch the movie a second time to appreciate the con. However, this can be real diffcult to pull off, and can confuse the reader because the story progression isn’t adding up–because it’s a con, and either the audience or the hero doesn’t know it’s a con. Easy solution would be to let the audience in on it, and make the hero the Mark–where he is supposed to die but he beats them at their own game. They tried to do this in the movie “The Game 1997”.

    Kerry

  10. Robert Jones

    Kerry,

    Agreed on all points. However, there’s one more thing to factor in…which is the two basic types of creative mindsets.

    Type 1: Feels they can do their best work in private. They sequester themselves in their studio, office, or whatever room of their home they set up in. They feel distractions and opinions should be kept to a bare minimum while weeding through the process of a creative project. This type is usually pretty self motivated, self-starters, but not always.

    Type 2: Feels they do their best work in a group. A studio where other creative types are working, sharing opinions, or even a classroom. This type usually puts off working on a project until the last possible minute, would rather do almost anything than sit down and do work outside the studio or office. They need to have others around to hold them to it–either by reminding them that they are wasting time, encouragement (sometimes ego stroking), or just seeing that everyone else is moving ahead and, in a sense, publicly shaming them to keep up with their peers.

    There’s no shame in falling into either category, as many great creative talents have come out of both mindsets. And sometimes we’ve all flip-flopped back and forth a bit. But let’s talk specifically about writers, who have no choice but to stare at a blank wall regardless, view the images inside their heads, tweak them, pick out the freshest details to write about. Many of us also come to writing with a lot of preconceived notions based on the images we’ve seen in films, or advice we’ve heard from other writers.

    TV and movies is the worst, passing on the idea that all one has to do is sit and sweat over their keyboards long enough and the muse will emerge with a story from the realm where all great stories live. Kind of a magical place we wait and hope to gain access to. Then we’re also told to guard our stories and not share them until we are ready. Good advice when drafting. But I’ve no doubt that many people take that as clamming up about their thoughts on craft as well. I’ve known several people that look at even craft advice as “Telling them how to write their story.” They find it discouraging. Hence Larry’s frustration in trying to get through to some folks who seem to erect a wall against knowledge because they’ve dove in too fast when it comes to writing their story. Then what happens when they show their work to an agent?

    I once started a writing group. It was short lived, but informative in an annoying sort of way. There was this lawyer who believed her trade made her very qualified to write a legal thriller. She had a good idea and dove immediately into writing it. She even went so far as to send a query letter to an agent right away–who liked her idea. Probably felt that the writer’s profession gave her some street creds as well. However, the lawyer, once in the thick of writing, couldn’t for the life of her make her story work and she was now stalling her agent. She came at me every day with a barrage of emails asking how to fix this or that, what should she do here…in short, she wanted me to fix her story. I didn’t. Maybe I would’ve, if she hired me as a ghost writer. But isn’t that how many people coast through school, or any higher learning? Get someone to do their homework for them? Or study just hard enough to pass the secular test and never pick the brains of their teachers to see what knowledge they might possess that’s not on the written exam. And hey, it’s all about making money anyway and we all know you don’t actually have to be smart to do that. It’s all about looking good, networking, and a good line of BS.

    Only craft doesn’t work that way. You can’t fake it, or BS your way through it. Which is why so few people who sit down to write actually do it successfully.

    Bringing this back to topic, maybe that’s why historical novels are so popular with the self-publishing crowd. There are lots of interesting stories to cash in on throughout history and real life events gives the writer cliff notes (cheat-sheets) for what they believe will make an excellent story. Maybe it really is a good idea. So why not dive in before properly prepared, do it your own way, sooner or later the muse will show up, right? And BTW, get your query letter out today and just find someone to help you with your homework tomorrow. Be a go-getter. Craft be damned! That’s just another word for rules…and so-and-so says there are no rules in writing as long the story works! The grandest of all oxymorons. Hoohah!!!

  11. Robert Jones

    I almost forgot my moral…LOL!

    Learn craft before taking the plunge. And while doing so, this site can make a terrific classroom. Sharing our trials and errors, asking questions, can be informative and encouraging. In that sense, I wish more folks would be a little more active as well.

  12. Bill Cory

    Yes, @Robert, this site certainly does make a great classroom, as have Larry’s books and talks. Before encountering the Works of Brooks, I was steadily working on the first novel idea that has ever really mattered to me. After I wrote my first 95,000-word draft, I realized even without Larry’s input that it was crap. Other than the protagonist having no reason to care about the problem in the story, and the antagonist being undefined — :\ — and the plot being absent … it was okay … (not). So, I trashed it and rewrote it, thinking I was fixing it. Eventually, 77,000 words later, it was better, but still missing something. Trashed that one, too, when I discovered Larry’s work, this site, had the epiphany he’s since written about, and created an outline. Just last night, I finished my third “First Draft,” at 99,005 words. It has a plot. It has a Hero. It has a mean and well-heeled antagonist. So it’s beginning its hibernation now. The final editing—not another complete redraft—will happen sometime after I’ve done the many chores that have accumulated on my wife’s honey-do list.

    Mine isn’t historical fiction, but it’s not just historical fiction writers who don’t put together a compelling story … it’s all of us, until we begin to “get it.” In case it isn’t obvious, this is just another “thank you” note for Larry.
    — Bill

  13. Robert Jones

    @Bill–I’ve been there as well. Everyone has failed novels laying around. Even very successful authors. Adding to what Kerry said in his first post above: success–be it a great scientific discovery, or understanding what makes a good novel–is built on a long line of failures. We try, fail, learn a few things from the attempt, then take our lessons learned onto the next attempt, repeat, and keep moving forward. Through much research and practice comes understanding and success. It takes a certain kind of personality, one infused with great determination and a love of the subject matter to get there. A lot of folks don’t have it, or loose their infatuation during the long haul. They discover it wasn’t true love after all and divorce their ambitions.

    Like any hero in any story…writing is about the journey. You’ll never get to your destination if you’re not enjoying the experience and enjoying the figuring out of all the little puzzles along the way.

    Larry’s work has really given writers a huge heads up. Provided they are willing to study the textbooks take a seat in the classroom 🙂