Saturday, March 26, 2011

Desultory Remarks

We had our first "big order" at our new printer Create Space. Someone ordered 62 books from our e-store. The costs were very minimal for switching printers, and now the move to Create Space has paid for itself four times over.

As an independent author, I try to keep up with what's going on in the Indie book world. Here are some recent items of interest:

Amanda Hocking, queen of the Indie book world (and author of paranormal romances), signed a book deal with a publishing house for two million dollars. Even though she could potentially make more money self-publishing her new series, she chose to do this because: “I want to be a writer...I do not want to spend 40 hours a week handling e-mails, formatting covers, finding editors, etc. Right now, being me is a full-time corporation.”

Thriller writer Barry Eisler turned down a five hundred thousand dollar deal in order to go Indie on his next book. In a conversation with J. Konrath, he says "This was one of the reasons I just couldn’t go back to working with a legacy publisher. The book is nearly done, but it wouldn’t have been made available until Spring of 2012. I can publish it myself a year earlier. That’s a whole year of actual sales I would have had to give up."
 
The twins are growing into strapping young lads, having fun rolling about and learning to laugh at silly adults.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Wherein Jasper Fforde Provides His Autograph and Advice for Writers


 On Monday night of this week, I had the distinct privilege of going to a Jasper Fforde book signing at the local Barnes & Noble. I went with a couple of friends, my mom, and my little brother (who was coerced into coming for lack of a babysitter). It started at 7pm; we got there an hour early, and just managed to get seats in the second to last row.

Jasper Fforde, in case you have not been introduced, is a Welsh author famous for his literary satire/fantasy. His current United States/Canada book signing tour is in honor of the recent publication of One of Our Thursdays is Missing, the sixth installment in the Thursday Next series that began with The Eyre Affair. Other series that he is in the process of writing are The Nursery Crime books and the Shades of Grey trilogy. Fforde writes like a quirky, modern P. G. Wodehouse, and the clever--but bizarre--nature of his characters, settings, and plots afford hours of entertainment. I have reviewed two of his books on my blog Read Room, The Last Dragonslayer and Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron.

The event at Barnes & Noble was billed as a reading from the new book and a book signing, so when I arrived there, I didn't realize that Fforde would actually be giving a forty-five minute talk on how his writing career started. Not only was his talk fascinating for all the readers interested in his back story, but it was also enlightening for aspiring writers.

The loudest message that I came away with was "Don't give up on getting your work published." Fforde was writing for ten years and had completed six books before any agent or publisher would touch his work. He mailed out dozens and dozens of query letters with first chapter included and received just as many rejection letters in response. Some of those queries are for the same books which are now receiving worldwide acclaim. Readers love them. He just had to get past the threshold guardians of the publishing houses before he could reach his audience.

When Fforde finally found an agent who would market his work, it was an agent who had just started up her own firm and had no clients--the perfect agent for new authors, Fforde says, because a new agent is willing to actually read submissions without rejecting them out of hand. She liked Fforde's book The Last Dragonslayer, but feared that in the current climate people would see it as a Harry Potter rip off. "Have you got anything else?" she asked. He sent her The Eyre Affair. Within three weeks she had found a publisher willing to put it out, and one of the publisher's first questions for Fforde was, "Can you write a sequel?"

Besides talking about his experiences of breaking into the publishing industry, Fforde also gave some anecdotal tips on writing itself. Everyone, he says, has the ability to be a writer; writing is simply telling a story, and humans are natural born storytellers. It's all about practice, Fforde says, just like any other skill you want to master.

One of the ways that Fforde honed his writing skills was by coming up with a problematic plot situation--a "narrative black hole," as he called it--and then "writing his way out of it." He gave the example of a short story that he had written where a man wakes up and finds a gorilla in the tree in his front yard. That was the narrative black hole. The subsequent story he created sounded like a brilliant farce, and I wish I had a copy of it to read. Using his creative ingenuity, Fforde resolved the gorilla situation and took the reader for an interesting ride along the way.

Another plot problem he gave to himself was a man finding that he has turned into a banana--except that the author banned himself from using the word banana throughout the whole story. Fforde created a Bronte-esque short story with a Gothic flavor as he told this man's tale of woe. He hopes that the reader's response shortly after finishing the story would be to slap themselves on the forehead and think, "I get it! He was a banana!"

This delayed realization that leads to hilarity is a reaction that Fforde often tries to generate. Throughout the talk, he mentioned several places in his books where the readers will be "punned by stealth." For example, in one of the Thursday Next books, he has a character named Page Turner, except he never refers to the character by her first and last name together -- until the final chapter of the book. The readers, seeing the two names in conjunction after all this time, finally get the joke. They've been punned by stealth.

While fielding questions from the audience, Fforde talked about his writing timetable for the next four years. He plans to release a book a year: one standalone, and one from each of the three series he is working on. The one I'm most excited about is the next Shades of Grey installment. The first book in this series, The Road to High Saffron, could be described as a humorous version of Orwell's 1984 (if that's possible). Interestingly, Fforde says that the Shades of Grey books are the most difficult for him to write since he's not "mining" the collective work of previous literature as he does in the Nursery Crime series and the Thursday Next books, but instead, is developing all the characters and plot lines on his own.


Above you have a picture of what Jasper Fforde looks like (right before he signed my copy of The Road to High Saffron). But what the picture doesn't convey is how amusing Fforde is in person (not just in writing) and how delightful his Welsh accent is. Below is Jasper Fforde in an interview he did with AM Northwest on one of our local news stations. It gives a brief impression of his mellifluous voice, but doesn't really express his wit as well as his talk at the book signing.




Next time Jasper Fforde comes to town, you should come out to hear him talk! I can guarantee you won't be as bored as my little brother Zane was....









Mom throws Zane a bone by buying him the next book he needs in the Boxcar Children series.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Five Different Ways of Viewing the World

Would someone unfamiliar with the MA [Middle Ages] be repulsed by the description of a medieval execution, with its throngs of avid spectators and its raucous fair-like atmosphere? Shocked that Henry and Eleanor married their daughters off before they reached puberty? How far do you think historical novelists should go to make their books palatable to modern readers? Is it necessary to make the characters in a novel about the ante-Bellum South all secret abolitionists at heart in order to win reader sympathy? What of a family living in Nazi Germany?
Historical novelist Sharon Kay Penman asks these questions at the conclusion of a recent article entitled History vs. Fiction. Ms. Penman's stated goal for her fiction is "to make the MA [Middle Ages] come alive to readers in a way that makes them want to keep turning the pages." At the same time, she is a self-proclaimed fanatic about historical accuracy. So what does she do when her MA characters view the world in a way that she (and her audience) disagrees with?

Ms. Penman identifies five ways in which the modern mindset differs significantly from the medieval mindset: "the concept of religious tolerance, anti-Semitism, the conduct of war, the status of women, and the treatment of animals." She gives examples from her novels to show how she deals with these difficult issues, trying to fairly represent the medieval characters without anachronism, but striving not to alienate her readers who come from a world wholly different. One great annoyance to me is when historical fiction authors turn their protagonist into a mouthpiece for twenty-first century propaganda, and this article is a refreshing reminder to me to be careful how I craft my characters.

"Religious tolerance," according to Ms. Penman, "was as rare in the MA as the unicorn. All men--be they Christian, Jew, or Muslim--were convinced that theirs was the True Faith.... They can respect one another's courage, but neither side doubts that damnation awaits their foes." Instead of making her characters agnostic or doubters of their own religion (as Ken Follett repeatedly did in World Without End), Penman tries to make them true to life. "I have to care in my novels to acknowledge this bedrock belief, so alien to most of us today." 

As I evaluate my own writing, I can say that describing religious "intolerance" in my writing isn't really a problem. I share the bedrock belief with the denizens of the Middle Ages that there is only one way to heaven, that not all faiths are equal. In Road from the West, all of my characters (Muslim, Jew, Christian, and even the various sects within Christianity) are inflexibly sure of the truth of their own religion.

Ms. Penman's second point is that, "Anti-Semitism is the ugly underside of medieval life." Even though it still exists to this day, "the difference is that in the MA, the Church gave official sanction to it." How does she portray this in her novels? 
I try to stay true to the tenor of the times, so virtually all of my characters are infected to some degree. When I needed a character to voice doubts, I had to choose an outsider to make it believable, a character who was a natural rebel and therefore more likely to question even the teachings of the Church....
I have thought about the subject of Anti-Semitism a lot in my own research and writing. Ms. Penman's claim that "in the MA, the Church gave official sanction to it," is a prevalent notion, and is based on the previous concept of religious intolerance. The Church taught that the Jews were going to hell, therefore, the Church taught people to be Anti-Semitic.

But at the same time, when looking at the primary sources it is interesting to note that it is the laity, and particularly the money-hungry monarchs who take anti-Semitism to the extremes of torture and murder. It was King John who pulled out a Jew's teeth to force him to reveal where his fortune was hidden, not the Church. It was Edward I who issued the edict expelling all the Jews from England. During the First Crusade, when German adventurers decide that the "will of God" is to murder all the Jews in the Rhineland, it is the Christian bishops who hide the Jews in their churches and denounce the actions of these "Crusaders" as evil. This is an often forgotten episode in history that I plan to describe in Road from the West.

The third area where Ms. Penman sees radical difference is in the medieval attitude toward war.

During the MA, the Church attempted to shield noncombatants, too--women, children, priests, pilgrims, etc. But the nature of medieval warfare--laying waste the lands of one's enemies--all but guaranteed there would be civilian casualties. And kings, knights, and soldiers accepted this as inevitable.... There was a strain of pacifism in the MA; there were even a few to criticize the crusades. But we're talking of a small minority and their views never wielded any influence.... So to be true to the times, I cannot have my characters reacting to the destruction of a town or the raping of its women as if it were a war crime, the way we would characterize it today.
I am pleased to see that Ms. Penman acknowledges that there was a pacifistic strain in the MA. I think she marginalizes the pacifist segment a little too much, however. There were many times throughout the centuries when the Church tried to impose the "Truce of God" on bickering barons, forbidding them to fight except between Monday and Wednesday, and not at all on Church holy days. The Church was not exactly a "minority" in society.

Did all kings, knights, and soldiers accept the carnage as "inevitable"? Were they all murderous brutes like the characters in Michael Crichton's Timeline? In my research on Tancred for Road from the West, the primary sources display pieces of his character that seem bipolar in our modern age. Ralph of Caen writes about Tancred:

Over time, however, his prudent soul raised concerns that caused him anxiety. It seemed that his military life contradicted the Lord's command. The Lord had commanded that after one cheek had been struck the other was to be offered as well. But a secular military life did not even permit the sparing of a relative's blood. The Lord admonished that it is necessary to give over one's cloak, as well, to the one asking for a tunic. By contrast, the necessity of military life urges that once these two garments have been seized, the rest are to be taken as well. These two principles opposed one another and undermined the bravery of a man full of wisdom [Tancred], if, indeed, they ever permitted him to sleep. But when Pope Urban's decision granted a remission of all sins to all of the Christians setting forth to fight against the pagans, then finally it was as if the vitality of the previously sleeping man was revived, his powers were roused, his eyes were opened and his boldness set in motion.

At first, it seems that Tancred has a "pacifist streak" to him, but at the end of the paragraph we see that the way he intends to atone for his sins of warfare is by entering into more warfare against the pagans. Later on, we learn that Tancred has no such scruples about the warfare in the East; after killing 700 Turks in battle, Tancred sends Bishop Adhemar 70 heads as a "tithe" of his prowess. This seeming contradiction relates to the first concept of "religious intolerance," and adds a little more dimension to the kings, knights, and soldiers of this age. For many, killing Christians was unacceptable while killing infidels was praiseworthy.

The fourth subject Ms. Penman addresses is the status of women in the MA. A current trend in historical fiction is to have "strong women" be the protagonists, women who exemplify the twenty-first century feminist ideal. Ms. Penman denounces these sort of characters as unhistorical:
Yes, there were those rare rebels like Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Empress Maude, but they paid a great price for their independent spirits. It is obvious that both Eleanor and Maude chafed under their matrimonial bonds, wanting more freedom than their world was willing to allow. But there is no evidence that they viewed themselves as part of an oppressed sisterhood; they wanted power and autonomy for themselves, not for all members of their sex. So it would be unrealistic if I were to write of a female character resentful of male dominance, one eager to prove herself as capable as any man.

This point is one I especially appreciated. I have recently read three different novels by three different authors all of which featured the character Eleanor of Aquitaine. Two of the three tried to do the very thing that Ms. Penman deplores, making Eleanor the champion for the rights of womankind against a male-dominated society.

Ms. Penman's last point is about the treatment of animals in the MA. She acknowledges that while a few rich people did have pets, "when daily life is so hard, few can spare sympathy for hungry dogs. This is especially true in a world in which people believe that God has given them dominion over the earth and all in it." It is interesting to note that she traces harsh treatment of animals back to Church. If it is a result of Christianity, then it is a misapplication of it somehow since Proverbs teaches that "the righteous man regards the life of his animal."

I would contest that the medieval view toward animals is more derived from being an agricultural society. When you live on a farm, you don't cry if a sheep gets slaughtered. Your dog is there to hunt and protect the house, and while you may feel some affection for him, the reality of frequent mortality makes you less sentimental.

Sharon Kay Penman's post is an excellent reminder to historical fiction authors to consider well what ideas we are carrying in our pockets when we time travel. She clearly identifies the five different ways of viewing the world between our era and the Middle Ages and provides so much food for thought that I'll be munching on it for some time to come.

Friday, March 11, 2011

It Isn't Just Academic

For the French, deciding which history to study isn't just an academic question anymore. Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, has announced his plan to make a national history museum, and that plan is upsetting some elements of the French society. The New York Times writes:

Mr. Sarkozy...has cooked up the Maison de l’Histoire de France, the country’s first national museum of French history, to open in 2015, in a wing of the rambling palace in the Marais district of Paris currently occupied by the National Archives. The idea is to distill centuries of Gallic gloire into a chronological display, supplemented by lectures, seminars and temporary shows borrowing materials from the country’s already plentiful local and regional history museums.
 This simple idea of founding a museum has provoked outrage in France (not necessarily a difficult thing to provoke in such a volatile nation). Citizens have lined the streets, waving signs behind barricades to protest Sarkosy's museum.
The problem? It boils down to a few issues: What does it mean to be French in the 21st century? And whose “history” should be celebrated? In an increasingly fractious and multicultural nation, the questions have no simple answers. 
For Sarkozy and his Minister of Cultural, the museum is meant to be a solution to France's identity crisis. With the increasing immigration changing the fabric of French society, people are forgetting what it means to be French. Sarkozy wants to remind them of their national identity.

But the national identity that Sarkozy sees for France isn't the same identity that others want to embrace. One critic says:
“To know about French Algeria you need to know about Algeria before France arrived there.... If we need any history museum, it would be a world history museum, not a French history museum, to give us a real perspective on who we are, and what is France today."
Many people, it seems, have the notion that to celebrate France would be to denigrate the rest of the world. Amazingly, it's not just the recent immigrants to France who have this notion but many of the ethnic French themselves.

G. K. Chesterton, in an article entitled "The Patriotic Idea," addressed and denounced this cosmopolitan sentiment. And since Chesterton's prose is richer and more delightful than any paraphrase I could write, I'm going to break a writer's taboo and bless you with several block quotes from his article.
This important and growing sect [i. e. cultural cosmopolitans], together with many modern intellectuals of various schools, directly impugn the idea of patriotism as interfering with the larger sentiment of the love of humanity. To them the particular is always the enemy of the general. To them every nation is the rival of mankind. To them, in not a few instances, every man is the rival of mankind....

Because the modern intellectuals who disapprove of patriotism do not do this [i.e. celebrate their country], a strange coldness and unreality hangs about their love for men. If you ask them whether they love humanity, they will say, doubtless sincerely, that they do. But if you ask them touching any of the classes that go to make up humanity, you will find that they hate them all. They hate kings, they hate priests, they hate soldiers, they hate sailors. They distrust men of science, they denounce the middle classes, they despair of working men, but they adore humanity. Only they always speak of humanity as if it were a curious foreign nation. They are dividing themselves more and more from men to exalt the strange race of mankind. They are ceasing to be human in the effort to be humane.

The truth is, of course, that real universality is to be reached rather by convincing ourselves that we are in the best possible relation with our immediate surroundings. The man who loves his own children is much more universal, is much more fully in the general order, than the man who dandles the infant hippopotamus or puts the young crocodile in a perambulator. For in loving his own children he is doing something which is (if I may use the phrase) far more essentially hippopotamic than dandling hippopotami ; he is doing as they do. It is the same with patriotism. A man who loves humanity and ignores patriotism is ignoring humanity. The man who loves his country may not happen to pay extravagant verbal compliments to humanity, but he is paying to it the greatest of compliments — imitation.

The fundamental spiritual advantage of patriotism and such sentiments is this : that by means of it all things are loved adequately, because all things are loved individually. Cosmopolitanism gives us one country, and it is good ; nationalism gives us a hundred countries, and every one of them is the best. Cosmopolitanism offers a positive, patriotism a chorus of superlatives. Patriotism begins the praise of the world at the nearest thing, instead of beginning it at the most distant, and thus it insures what is, perhaps, the most essential of all earthly considerations, that nothing upon earth shall go without its due appreciation. Wherever there is a strangely-shaped mountain upon some lonely island, wherever there is a nameless kind of fruit growing in some obscure forest, patriotism insures that this shall not go into darkness without being remembered in a song.
"...without being remembered in a song." I like that sentiment. Although I'm sure that there are many unmentioned political motivations behind Sarkozy's museum, I still hope that the project goes through. I hope that the French can "begin the praise of the world at the nearest thing," and stop dandling a young hippopotamus when they have their own children to hold.

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