Saturday, April 30, 2011

There at Last, but Not Quite Done

100,000 words was the approximate length of my last novel, I Serve, and 100,000 was the goal to shoot for with my current WIP, Road from the West.

In a December 31st post, I announced that if I could keep up with my weekly schedule of writing 2500 words a week, I would be done with my new book "sometime in April." Well, here it is April 30. I've stuck to my schedule, and I've reached 100,000 words. But the book's not quite done. The story hasn't quite told itself. I've a few chapters, and maybe 5,000 - 10,000 words left to go.

New plan: finish rough draft by May 14. I think I can, I think I can, I think I can....

__________________________________

EXCERPT FROM ROAD FROM THE WEST

One chill evening, as the marquis prepared to go to the council tent, he bade Alexandra fetch his cloak. If she insisted on loitering around his tent with the mournful eyes of a stray hound, she might as well make herself useful.
The girl rose to her feet, a little shakily, and rubbed her arms briefly as a talisman against the crisp spring air. Tancred, hunched over attending to his bootstraps, glimpsed her form from the corner of his eye moving toward the tent. Then, suddenly, the motion ceased. Alexandra fell to the ground midstride, her voice making no sound as she lost consciousness and her small body making little impact on the packed dirt below. 
“What is wrong with her?” asked Tancred obtusely.
Ralph stared at him. Could he really not know? “She has not eaten a bite of food in over three days,” he said reproachfully....

Friday, April 29, 2011

A Certain Degree of Shamelessness


What's wrong with literary self-promotion? Is it crass to energetically promote a novel or collection of poems or short stories that you have worked long and hard upon, and from which you hope to make a few dollars? Is there something immoral about an author renting out his image to build up his brand? Why should only rappers and athletes have their names on sneakers?
Columnist Paul Devlin asks these questions at the beginning of a 2006 article entitled "For Whom the Shill Tolls: Hemingway's Lost Work for Ringling Bros. and Ballantine Ale." In the piece, Mr. Devlin points out that Hemingway's self-promotion (while doing ad spots for these companies) was completely in keeping with American literary tradition. "Unlike their European counterparts, who could rely on the patronage of kings, nobles, or government-funded churches, American writers have long had to keep an eye on money, marketing, and 'self-legendizing.'" 


An essay in today's New York Times shows this American "self-legendizing" in action, in the person of nineteenth century poet Walt Whitman:
Walt Whitman notoriously wrote his own anonymous reviews, which would not be out of place today on Amazon. “An American bard at last!” he raved in 1855. “Large, proud, affectionate, eating, drinking and breeding, his costume manly and free, his face sunburnt and bearded.”
While Devlin sees this self-promotion as particularly American in nature, the New York Times essay shows that being born a European has never been a sure guarantee of patronage. Writers have had to resort to these sorts of Walt Whitman shenanigans ever since the days of clay tablets and papyrus scrolls. 
In 440 B.C. or so, a first-time Greek author named Herodotus paid for his own book tour around the Aegean. His big break came during the Olympic Games, when he stood up in the temple of Zeus and declaimed his “Histories” to the wealthy, influential crowd. 
This self-promoting trend did not stop with the "father of history." Book parties abounded at Oxford during the Middle Ages thrown by clergymen aspiring to be authors. Hot air balloons soared over the skies of nineteenth century Paris with the names of newly published short stories painted on the sides.


And today? Do we still have the same need to self-promote as did Herodotus, Whitman, and Hemingway? Absolutely! A Washington Post article from 2009 says: 
Book publishers actively market and promote authors, of course, particularly the big names, but for thousands of writers it's a figure-it-out-yourself world of creating book trailers, Web sites and blogs, social networking and crashing on friends' couches during a tour you arrange.... Authors are expected to behave like mini-entrepreneurs. 
The one thing that has changed, however, is the public perception (and self-perception) of the people who engage in this kind of self-promotion.  "In the intervening years," writes Devlin, "our culture has become increasingly preoccupied with 'authenticity,' and the reclusive genius seems more romantic to us than the swaggering boaster does." 


As one of the thousands of writers in a "figure-it-out-yourself" world, I must admit that I often feel a sense of great awkwardness in thrusting--or attempting to thrust--my work into the limelight. "Is it crass," Devlin asks, "to energetically promote a novel...that you have worked long and hard upon, and from which you hope to make a few dollars?" I suppose not, but it doesn't exactly feel noble either. 
In such moments of doubt, I look to history for reassurance. It’s always comforting to be reminded that literary whoring — I mean, self-marketing — has been practiced by the greats. 
The most revered of French novelists recognized the need for P.R. “For artists, the great problem to solve is how to get oneself noticed,” Balzac observed in “Lost Illusions,” his classic novel about literary life in early 19th-century Paris. As another master, Stendhal, remarked in his autobiography “Memoirs of an Egotist,” “Great success is not possible without a certain degree of shamelessness, and even of out-and-out charlatanism.” Those words should be on the Authors Guild coat of arms.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

People who have twins...

...are always interested in other people who have twins too.

Ana T. is a thoughtful and well-expressed book blogger from Portugal who contributes to Historical Tapestry. (In fact, she did that site's review of I Serve in March of last year.) She used to be one the most frequent posters on HT, but lately her posts have been fewer and farther between.

The latest post on her personal website Aneca's World shows a must-see photo of why she's been absent and why she doesn't know when she'll be returning to blogging.

Congratulations, Ana! The twins are adorable!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

All Fiction is Fan Fiction

"Overheard on the Titanic," by Austin Kleon (Available for purchase here)
I read an interesting article yesterday by author/artist Austin Kleon titled "How to Steal Like an Artist (and 9 Other Things Nobody Told Me)." Mr. Kleon, who creates poetry by blacking out most of the words of newspaper articles, offers some amusingly illustrated advice for authors, artists, musicians, or any other kind of creative type. My favorite section of his essay states:
The question every young writer asks is: “What should I write?”
And the cliched answer is, “Write what you know.”
This advice always leads to terrible stories in which nothing interesting happens.
The best advice is not to write what you know, it’s write what you *like*.
Write the kind of story you like best.
We make art because we like art.
All fiction, in fact, is fan fiction.
The best way to find the work you should be doing is to think about the work you want to see done that isn’t being done, and then go do it.
Draw the art you want to see, make the music you want to hear, write the books you want to read.
 And that is why I write historical fiction.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Top Ten Things You Never Knew You Wanted to Know about the Seljuk Turks

Last week was a lovely week for writing (Did I mention I'm at 90,000 words on Road from the West?) and also a lovely week for research. The Seljuk Turks occupied most of my attention as I tried to figure out how, when, and why the Turks got to Turkey in the first place. Here are the top ten things you never knew you wanted to know about the Seljuk Turks:

1. The Turks originally hailed from central Asia, spanning an area about as large as the United States. This land encompassed the modern day countries of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and northern China.

2. The Turks converted to Islam in the tenth century A. D. under pressure from rulers in Persia.

3. There were dozens of tribes within the Turkish race all striving for dominance over the others. The Seljuks were one such tribe and rose to the top of the pile in the first part of the eleventh century A. D.

4. In A. D. 1055, the Abbasid Caliph invited the Seljuk ruler Tughril to come to Baghdad and provide military aid against his rivals. The Abbasids were Sunni Muslims and constantly at odds with the Shiite Muslims led by the Fatimids in Egypt.

5. Tughril helped the Caliph by promptly seizing power, demoting the Caliph to no more than a religious figurehead, and becoming the first "Sultan of Great Seljuk." His empire stretched all the way from the Holy Land to India.

6. Tughril's nephew, Alp Arslan, expanded the Seljuk empire even farther by conquering Armenia and attacking the Byzantine Empire. He defeated the Byzantines (and captured their emperor) at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071. Many historians have seen this battle as the fatal wound that would eventually lead to the death of the Eastern Roman Empire centuries later.

7. Alp Arlsan deputized many atabegs (governors) to rule the provinces of his expansive empire. During the reign of his son, Malik Shah, some of these atabegs grew so powerful that they owed only a nominal fealty to the sultan. There was much in-fighting between these Seljuk rulers, a situation that would help the Crusaders immensely.

8. Suleiman, Alp Arslan's cousin, was deputized to oust the Byzantines from Asia Minor. He pushed them back all the way to the Hellespont, taking the ancient city of Nicaea as his capital. The land he conquered became known as the Sultanate of Rum (because it had once belonged to Rome / "Rum"), and by the twelfth century it was being called "Turchia" by historians.

9. It was Suleiman's incursions in Asia Minor that led the current Byzantine emperor Alexios Comnenos to write to Pope Urban asking for military aid. He wanted the westerners to send mercenaries to help him regain his empire. Alexios' daughter Anna Comnena records how serious the situation was for those living in Constantinople:
As I have said in a previous chapter, the godless Turks were in sight, living in the Propontis area, and Sulayman, who commanded all the east, was actually encamped in the vicinity of Nicaea. His sultanate was in that city (we would call it his palace). The whole countryside of Bithynia and Thynia was unceasingly exposed to Sulayman's foragers; marauding parties on horseback and on foot were raiding as far as the town now called Damalis on the Bosphorus itself; they carried off much booty and all but tried to leap over the very sea. The Byzantines saw them living absolutely unafraid and unmolested in the little villages on the coast and in sacred buildings. The sight filled them with horror. They had no idea what to do.
10. In A. D. 1095,  Pope Urban used Alexios' appeal for aid as a chance to call for a Crusade to free the Holy Land from the Muslims. The Faitmid Muslims had held control of Jerusalem and the Holy Land for almost four centuries; however, their policy had been one of religious toleration, allowing Christians to live there and pilgrims to come and go freely. When the Seljuk Turks took over the Holy Land from the Fatimids, this policy changed drastically. Pope Urban exhorted the Franks to journey to Jerusalem and free it from the horrors perpetrated by the Turks:
From the confines of Jerusalem and the city of Constantinople a horrible tale has gone forth and very frequently has been brought to our ears, namely, that a race from the kingdom of the Persians, an accursed race, a race utterly alienated from God, a generation forsooth which has not directed its heart and has not entrusted its spirit to God, has invaded the lands of those Christians and has depopulated them by the sword, pillage and fire; it has led away a part of the captives into its own country, and a part it has destroyed by cruel tortures; it has either entirely destroyed the churches of God or appropriated them for the rites of its own religion. They destroy the altars, after having defiled them with their uncleanness. They circumcise the Christians, and the blood of the circumcision they either spread upon the altars or pour into the vases of the baptismal font. When they wish to torture people by a base death, they perforate their navels, and dragging forth the extremity of the intestines, bind it to a stake; then with flogging they lead the victim around until the viscera having gushed forth the victim falls prostrate upon the ground. Others they bind to a post and pierce with arrows. Others they compel to extend their necks and then, attacking them with naked swords, attempt to cut through the neck with a single blow. What shall I say of the abominable rape of the women? To speak of it is worse than to be silent. The kingdom of the Greeks [Byzantines] is now dismembered by them and deprived of territory so vast in extent that it can not be traversed in a march of two months. On whom therefore is the labor of avenging these wrongs and of recovering this territory incumbent, if not upon you? You, upon whom above other nations God has conferred remarkable glory in arms, great courage, bodily activity, and strength to humble the hairy scalp of those who resist you.
Pope Urban Calls for the Crusade
All this is background for the story of the First Crusade, a story I will be telling in my Chronicles of Tancred trilogy. The first draft of the first book, Road from the West, should be completed next month and the finished work will, Lord willing, be published sometime this summer.


Haunted by guilt from the past and nightmares of the future, a young Norman named Tancred takes the cross and vows to be the first to free Jerusalem from the infidels. As he journeys to the Holy Land, he braves deadly deserts, frightful famine, and the sharp swords of the enemy Turks, but the greatest peril he faces is deciding which of the Crusader lords to trust.

When Tancred accepts a commission to deliver an emerald ring to a Turkish princess, the ring turns out to be a far heavier burden than anticipated. A mysterious prophecy promises that he will find great love and great sorrow on his quest, but the last seems intent on claiming him before he has found the first. 

Friday, April 1, 2011

Occupational Hazard

I like to take care of my books. I don't fold back the covers too far; I use post-it notes to mark items of interest instead of dog-earing the page; I use highlighters or underlining only on special occasions.

I have about twenty books that I am using to research Road from the West, and about half a dozen of those I refer to regularly. One of my most important titles is The Gesta Tancredi of Ralph of Caen: A History of the Normans on the First Crusade (Crusade Texts in Translation).  Medieval texts can be pricey and this one currently retails for one hundred dollars on Amazon.


The other day Oliver threw up all over this book. A lot. True story.






I still think he's cute.
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