Monday, December 28, 2009

Lessons Learned


Some of the best gifts I received this year didn't come wrapped up at my birthday or during the holidays.  As another productive writing year draws to an end, I've compiled a list of all the valuable things I learned about writing and publication.  Some, I've known all along and just needed them etched into my brain, and others were like a brilliant light bulb being turned on for the first time.

1. Writing Is The Easy Part.  I never thought I'd say this, especially after agonizing over characters, descriptions, passive voice, dialogue, tension, etc. for so long, but it's absolutely true.  If you have characters and a setting you love and know well, the writing flows freely.  Nothing quite like shutting yourself away for a few hours in a world of your own making.  And after all that, you get the chance to shape your writing into something than someone other than you or a dear, patient friend or family member would find coherent, and actually want to read.

2. No Matter How Many Times You've Edited or Revised, You Will Always Miss Something. Whether it's a missing word, misspelled words, repeated words, or just plainly and simply, the wrong word, when another would be so much better, there's always something that needs just a little tweaking. Accept it, get over it, and fix it, before submitting.

3. Publishing Is The Hard Part.  Getting the story, setting and characters that live only inside your head onto paper or the computer screen is great, but getting agents who believe in you and the story, editors to acquire your work and critics who love the book, too, is even better.  But it's still hard, with smaller advances being offered and publishers hesitant to take on new writers while hoping their current stable of authors keep the revenue flowing, which led me to my next realization.
 
4. Publishing Is A Business.  Don't Take It Personal. Repeat as needed: Publishers are in business to make money.      

5. Writers' Conferences Are Invaluable.  I've enjoyed every conference I've attended, simply because there's no better networking opportunity, with the chance to connect with top agents and editors, and fellow writers, sharing interests and goals.           

6. Friends Are Even More Invaluable, Especially If They're Also Writers.  And if they're writer friends in a critique group, who share your interests and provide comments and feedback you can rely on, WOO!  In the lonely world of writing, a network of support is critical for celebrating successes, easing disappointments, encouraging goals, sustaining your sanity and keeping you grounded.  Or, for when you just want to stop talking about the woes of writing for a while and hang out, have dinner and see a movie, or catch up on all the really important stuff you missed while you were glued to your writing.  So, thank you to all my friends, the writers and non-writers, who've known all my quirks and faults, but still stick by me.  Wishing all of you the best in 2010!

So, what did you learn this year?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Waiting Game


Last month, in the midst of my job's annual convention madness, I received a request for a full. "Yippee...oh, hell!" So, there was the mad dash to read through the entire manuscript in one weekend, applying everything I've learned in working with a freelance editor. Then finally, I pressed the Send button, which has to be the most thrilling / horrible moment in a writer's life -- all your hopes bubble up from deep inside you, before you experience total nausea and despair, when you realize you left out a key word or line from some chapter.

What follows is the Waiting Game. You wait for the delivery receipt that your mail has reached its intended destination, or the read receipt indicating that someone, hopefully the person you intended, at least clicked on your email. Whether or not it was read, who knows? Then you wait for the allotted time in which you've been told your manuscript will be reviewed; weeks or months invariably. If it's in November or December, you know the holidays are coming, so you should also anticipate that your waiting may be extended another two weeks beyond what you've been told. You're probably looking at a reply sometime in January the following year. The Waiting Game is just not fun.

Every moment you wait, you think of all the reasons the person to whom you sent your manuscript must be wondering, "Why did I bother to request this submission? This isn't what I wanted, at all." You wonder when he or she will get back to you with the awful truth: you suck and you will never publish anything. You go back to the manuscript and realize everything's wrong with it.

To pass time, you consider drinking yourself into oblivion with punch or eggnog laced with a little something extra, cause after all the holidays are near. You also wonder if it would be best to trash the entire manuscript now, toss the computer out of the window, and just give up writing altogether. Or, you think whether you should just write to the person, apologizing profusely for offering him or her such drivel, vowing that someone, not you, pressed the Send button before you were actually ready to send it off, or swearing that though your full name is on the manuscript, and your last name is part of the header of every page, no, that is most certainly not your work, and must be someone's version of an awful joke.

Email becomes the center of your universe. You're furiously scanning your Blackberry, your PC at home, your workstation, every minute of every hour, just knowing that yes, today, today will be the day when someone emails you about the manuscript you sent off in those long weeks or months. Until then, you just wait some more.

Waiting.  Waiting....

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

First vs. Third Person



Lately, I've had the pleasure of reading some great historical fiction in first person: Michelle Moran's Cleopatra's Daughter, Anita Davison's latest WIP, The Cherry Garden and now, Brandy Purdy's The Boleyn Wife.  With all this reading comes the inevitable question; what's with the great debate about first versus third person narratives?

Some people LOATHE first person, cannot appreciate it and will not touch it with the proverbial ten foot pole. But there are also others who swear it is the only viewpoint they love, especially when the main character is female. Having written in both third and first person, I understand the pros and cons of each, but I still like first person better.

First person can be stilted or awkward, with a tendency to catalogue every action; e.g. I woke up, I bathed, and I ate my cereal. Or, there are somewhat contrived scenes where the main character is always at the right moment and time whenever a major event happens. And, sometimes, the immediacy of the ever-present "I" is repetitive and a bit claustrophobic. Third person isn't without its perils too. It's easy to blur the line between the characters' thoughts and author exposition - I've always found Little Women difficult when Alcott intrudes into her characters' scenes. Third person is detached, requiring less emotional involvement for the reader than first person. Also, when working with multiple POVs in third person, if characters don't have distinct voices or there's no indication the character POV has changed, the reader quickly gets lost. 

Are there certain stories or genres where first person or third person is more appropriate?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The First Paragraph

Agent Nathan Bransford is hosting the Ultimate First Paragraph Challenge on his blog; entries must be received by Thursday, Oct. 15 4pm Pacific.  I entered my first paragraph of Renegade today after reading some of the early entries when the contest launched two days ago and once again, saw proof of why some struggle to snag an agent - too much competition from so many talented writers.

I've been fortunate to read a lot of good writing lately, the sort of work that hooks you and makes you want to race through the story because you can't wait to find out what happens next.  The common thread in each story has been an excellent opening paragraph; something about the scene, setting or characters just gripped me at the start.  Knowing where to begin a manuscript is key to hooking any reader with your first paragraph.  Sometimes it can be a monumental event in the characters' lives or just something out of the ordinary, but it must be important enough for the reader to care what comes next.  Also, the opening paragraph creates an implicit promise with the reader; the momentum with which the story began is how most expect it will end. 

As a writer or reader, what do you look for in a first paragraph?   

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Anti-Hero


The anti-hero has become my favorite principal character in fiction. I love the men who are less than ideal or picture-perfect, so flawed that at the outset they seem beyond all redemption. It's more accurate to say I start out hating them for the miserable bastards they are but by novel's end, the anti-hero and the writer's skill at character portrayal, have won me over.

Murad Reis, the protagonist in my new WIP, Renegade, is a Dutch privateer turned Barbary corsair who fits the anti-hero description perfectly: A central figure in a work that repels us by his or her actions or morality, yet who is not a villain. The Anti-hero accomplishes a useful purpose or even does heroic deeds. I started researching Murad nearly two years ago, in part because I attended a writers' conference session on pirates. While I prefer the medieval period, the age of piracy and the 17th century also interest me. Murad was born Jan Janszoon and took to the seas as a Dutch privateer. Many years later, Barbary pirates captured him and since they always needed skilled seaman, he joined them. In doing so, he abandoned his wife and small children, preyed upon the ships and lands of many European nations and sold their people into slavery, and in general, seems to have been a mercilessly brutal, calculating, cold-hearted sort of man. Yet, he was welcomed with open arms at the end of his life by his youngest daughter whom he'd abandoned. He's an absolutely perfect historical figure to research and write about because he's conflicted and lacks clear motives or morals.

The anti-hero may be the guy that you love to hate but without him, the pages in which he lives would be less memorable. Some of my favorites in literature include Lestat de Lioncourt of the Anne Rice novels and Severus Snape in the Harry Potter series. Who's yours?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

What Rules?


In the critique groups I belong to, members constantly talk about the unwritten rules of writing. "Don't start a scene with dialogue." "No head-hopping." "Get rid of passive voice." "Lose the dialogue tags." "No back story in the first few chapters."

I've read at least six bestsellers this year, which break every one of these rules, from established authors and those just beginning their careers.

The latest book I'm reading has at least seven characters, so far, all narrating in first person. When I started submitting Sultana, which was originally four characters in first person, much of the advice I received from the crit group was that a first person story with four main characters was too confusing. Even though I identified each character at the opening of the chapter. So, I was very curious to see how a best-selling author would handle multiple characters in first person. I've found only one character in the novel distinct from the others. Yet, this is a best-selling book.

It seems clear if a writer is clever enough or well-known, he or she can get away with breaking the rules. What does it mean for those of us who are unpublished? Do the rules still apply?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

What Motivates You?


Bill O'Hanlon wrapped up the final day of the WD conference with a very appropriate topic; energizing your writing with your skill and perseverance. He and other authors shared their motivational sources and stressed using your emotional states of Blissed, Blessed, Pissed and/ or Dissed in your writing, to keep yourself going even when it gets tough.

Motivation can come from both negative and positive events in your life. Who would guess that a career as a mystery writer would begin for Sue Grafton, while dreaming up imaginative ways of killing or maiming her soon-to-be ex-husband? If you're angry about a particular condition or a crusader who wants to change the world, like Andrew Vachss in his crime fiction, channel your anger into your writing.

What's your motivation?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

When Is It Time To Get a Freelance Editor?


At the WD conference on Saturday, three independent editors, Alice Rosengard, Ruth Greenstein and Linda Carbone led a lively session on the freelance editing. I've blogged about this issue in recent weeks and decided to attend the session.

The freelance editors discussed when the need for their services arose, as editorial departments at various publishing houses began to downsize. They also provided several means of locating editors through other writers, Publishers Marketplace, and direct hire. They shared their individual approaches to editing, looking at technical concerns such as POV, sequence of events, character development and veracity; the average costs of such services, the length of time it can take dependent on the quality of the work, and the things a freelance editor cannot guarantee the author, such as a sale.

The topic is of particular interest to me because I've decided to hire a freelance editor, whom I had the pleasure of meeting two years ago at the Historical Novel Society. We've barely started but I'm already impressed by her professionalism and the recommendations I've had from her previous and current clients. What made me decide to do this? As Ruth Greenstein advised attendees today, I've reached a critical point in my manuscript; I've done as much as I possibly can with it. It's gone through a critique group and I've revised and edited until I felt I would go mad. Now, I feel is the time for fresh eyes to spot the difficulties I'm NOT seeing.

I don't know what the result may be, but for a work that is so precious to me, I've often referred to it as my baby, it's worth the investment.

Friday, September 18, 2009

What Kind of Writer Are You?


Jane Friedman, editorial director of Writers' Digest, started her session, Decisions, Decisions: Deciding the Best Publishing Route for You at the conference, with "What Kind of Writer Are You?".

a) The "God" Category
You want to be published by the big six publishers and make millions of dollars. You live and breathe your writing and you may just have the commercial appeal to pull it off. But even though you are the God of Writing, you still need to: promote! promote! promote! (So, apparently even gods have to do some work.)

b) "Growing" Category
People who are starting out and are focused more on the writing and have room to grow in the marketing world. You're on your way (possibly) to acknowledging that rejection is part of the business but you're willing to be persistent.

c) "Authority" Category
Especially for non-fiction writers; you know your audience better than a mainstream publisher or you've created a niche for yourself and you can convert fans of your work into buyers.

I'd define myself as a growing writer, because quite frankly, I'd never consider myself in the "God" category. My critique groups can attest to this, cause I often actually say in my comments to them that I'm not the God of Writing.

I've met enough writers with ego who aim to be Gods and I wish them good luck with it. They have the drive to get there and the single-minded motivation to do it. I had a friend once ask me, if I wasn't aiming for the stars, what would be the point?

While publication is the ultimate goal, if it never happens, I won't stop living. It is one part of my life; a very important part but my success or failure at it doesn't define me.

So, what kind of writer are you?

Writers' Digest: The Business of Getting Published


This weekend, I'm at a conference in NYC, the Business of Getting Published, sponsored by Writers' Digest. I attended the opening address by Mike Shatzkin and Jane Friedman's session on deciding the best route towards getting published.

This is only the second writing conference I've attended, but I love them, for the chance to network with fellow writers. It's always reassuring to realize that whether fiction or non-fiction, we share the same concerns regarding the current and future state of publishing. Especially when the universal approach from most publishers has become an expectation that their authors should do more (Facebook, Twitter and all social media - promote! promote! promote!) with potentially less (advances, that is).

I'll be blogging about the conference all weekend. Looks to be a good one.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Dirty Little Secret



If you hired a freelance editor to help you re-work your manuscript, would you ever admit it? To anyone?

I've discussed this option with a friend of mine recently, who has hired a mutual acquaintance of ours. With the freelance editor's help, my friend is writing better than ever. There's a prevailing stigma against having a freelance editor, because people often associate them with scams. One of my favorite blogs, The Rejecter, posted a lively discussion about this same topic here. The consensus seems to be that most often it's a scam and that even if the freelance editor helps the author improve the work, there's no guarantee of a sale. Also, even if you hire one, never EVER admit to having done so to an agent or editor, because somehow this makes the work less worthy.

As with anything, I think you have to use common sense in considering a freelance editor and ask a few questions before paying someone to edit your work. What experience does the freelance editor have? Better yet, does he / she have a previous client list they're willing to share, preferably one with authors who've actually gone on to sell the work the freelancer edited? How much is the freelancer charging? Do they do sample edits, and if so, do you feel as though the freelancer is knowledgeable and helpful?

There's such a stigma attached to paying someone else to edit your work, but for those who see real value in it, I wonder, what's the harm?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Build It, Blog It and They Will Come...

...Fans and other writers, I mean, not agents and editors. When you're not published, it can seem unnecessary to establish an Internet presence. You don't have a published work readily available for sale, and it's unlikely an agent or editor scanning the Web will come across your work and contact you (God, if only it were that easy). But it's a mistake to think this way, because then you're missing out on the opportunity to build a future fan base and connect with other writers.

In the last two weeks, strangers, old junior high and elementary school friends, and even the principal of my junior high school who reads historical fiction, have contacted me just because I've established a web presence. And a week ago, I met another wonderful writer who's as interested in the Norman Conquest period as I am, and we've talked on the phone and exchanged emails since then. Most of my writing friends have always provided me encouragement, but there's no denying the thrill I get when a stranger or someone unexpected stops by my website, personal blog or any of the other sites I contribute to, just to say, "I love what you're doing and can't wait to read your published works."

In September, I'll be attending the Writers' Digest Conference: The Business of Getting Published, where a few of the sessions will be on building an effective author website, and marketing and promotion. Clearly, an Internet presence is key to establishing a writing career, especially now that publishers spend less than in the past on promoting authors. I'm excited to learn more, so I can hit the ground running when I get my first sale.

Monday, August 10, 2009

A Lovely Blog Award



Since my dear friend Anita Davison was kind enough to mention me for A Love Blog Award, I'm sharing the wealth:

Catherine Delors is a wonderful writer, the author of Mistress of the Revolution, and her blog is Versailles and More, features fascinating articles about life for the decadent French court and the tragedy of the French Revolution.

History Buff, the blog of author Michelle Moran, has great links to items on archaeological history. Michelle's first two novels on Egypt's Amarna period have been bestsellers, and her love of archaeology and history enriches her writing.

And, if you're fascinated by the 17th century, Hoydens and Firebrands, has fascinating articles and biographies of the period.

Somebody Really Likes You When They...

...nominate you for a blog award.

A darling friend Anita nominated me for a Lovely Blog Award. Since I haven't done regular updates (bad Lisa) and have just been moaning to her lately about my struggles (poor, poor, poor Lisa), I wondered what I could have possibly done to deserve the nod. But then I read her wonderful post.

She also helped me put things into perspective, because at the end of the day, what matters most are the people who believe and support, offer a shoulder to cry on when times get tough and cheer at even the smallest accomplishment. That makes any struggle on the road to publication worthwhile.

Thanks, Anita.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Recession? What Recession?

These days, it seems all anyone can hear or read in the news is about the recession, except when it's about the swine flu. Swine flu - that's such an obnoxious sounding name.

It appears publishers are paying attention to doomsday forecasters, but readers aren't. Thank God. I know readers are still buying, cause I'm one of them. I just added the latest Sookie Stackhouse novel, another book on pirates and my personal favorite title, "Bullies, Bastards & Bitches - How to Write the Bad Guys of Fiction" to my shelves. Honestly, the last thing I need is more books on the shelves. I can't even stack them properly so there's a little pile of books forming on the floor next to the bookcase.

Anyway, scanning the news on book sales during this recession, the common theme is: books sales are up, despite the recession, whether it's e-books or romances. Theories abound from books offering a cheap means of escape from economic realities (if you can't fly to Parish this year, read about someone who did) to the escapism books offer as a whole (if you're working long nights to bring home the bacon and leaving little time for romance, at least you can read about someone else's romantic adventures). I'll also add that if you're a historical fiction writer and you like to have your research aids handy, and avoid running off to the library each time you need to check your sources, you aren't going to stop buying books any time soon either.

Unfortunately, bookstores have been cutting back on their orders in anticipation of slower sales and some have closed altogether. Even worse, I'm hearing that publishers don't want to take on new authors or have significantly reduced their advances. Some New York publishing houses have announced layoffs and / or executive shake-ups. All of this seems out of step with the needs of readers, who are still buying books.

So what does all this mean for the writer? Keep on writing. To flip the age-old adage, what goes down, must come up. And hopefully, the economy that is tanking has bottomed out or will very shortly. When you've hit rock bottom, the only direction is right back up. And, in the year(s) that it takes the economy to rebound, that gives a writer plenty of time to research, write the first draft and revise for the second. Plenty of time to hit the ground running when publishers realize readers still want their books, even during a recession.

I just found out Penguin was formed in 1935, during that really, really, really big recession known as the Great Depression. If Penguin survived that period, I think the large publishing houses can ride out this one out too.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Rejection: The Ugly "R" Word

I wish I had pearls of wisdom for how to handle rejection. I'd distribute those gems to myself and fellow writers generously. Unfortunately, rejection is part of the quest for publication. But at some point, when the rejections pour in, you do start to wonder: is it time to give up on this project? Or, even worse, is it time to give up on writing altogether and take up knitting?

Since I don't know how to knit and refuse to learn because I've seen someone jabbed by a knitting needle (it's not as harmless as one would think), I persevere with my writing. Two weeks ago, I received a rejection for another work Bound by Blood. Feeling sorry for myself, I went off to into my quagmire of doubt and self-pity for a bit. And because I like to depress myself, I opened up the database where I keep track of my queries to find the fifty-seven rejections I have for Sultana. That's right, fifty-seven rejections racked up between agents and publishers. Some writers might be awed by that number, others would say when I've racked up a hundred rejections, then it's time to re-evaluate. I have no clue how to evaluate the number, but I can pinpoint a few that have dented, dinged and chipped my writing soul.

Then today, I stumbled on a blog that asked a wonderful question; for those of you born to write, do you also believe you were born to be published? I've blogged about the joy of writing and I can even recall when I decided, more than four years ago, that the joy of writing had morphed into a real goal of publication. There's a huge difference between wanting to write and wanting to be widely read and receive criticism on your work. Writing can be a very self-indulgent, lonesome activity. It's another thing entirely to open up your work to the public. To invite criticism and rejection on a larger scale than a few queries could ever solicit.

When I was down in the dumps, a lovely member of a critique group helped me put a smile on my face again, with this hilarious take on how one author handled rejection.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

We Are The Market?

Among my favorite blogs are the blogs of agents, editors and/or their assistants, e.g. Chuck Sambuchino's Guide to Literary Agents and The Rejecter. I' ve had some writing friends say that an agent who blogs isn't selling, but we all need a little down time in my opinion. And, blogs by contacts in the industry are the first stop for those of us still struggling to secure contracts.

A little while back, I had a slight meltdown entitled Watch the Market . Then today, I read the Rejecter's latest blog article. In part, it explained the publishing market and why it is the way it is: readers buy the books, publishing companies track what readers buy, and editors contract for similar works, either as more of the same or with a slightly different twist. So, if I want to see more historical fiction out there, I have to buy more. Or, if we all go out and buy self help or memoirs, there'll be more of the same. Got it now? Good because if there's anything I love more than writing a book, it's reading one. Reading has been one of my first loves since I was a child and my collection has grown to the point where I now give away all my favorite fiction because my shelves are filled with the research books I need. But honestly, I never gave much thought to how I might be influencing the type of books that clutter bookstores.

This whole thing has a chicken or egg feel to it, though. We tell the publishers, "yes, we want to see more great historical fiction" so they publish more. Except, who really sets the market in motion: the writer who writes very well, the agent who makes the sale, the editor who accepts the manuscript, the marketing team's blitzkrieg of promotions or the readers, like me, who love the book / author and just want more of the same?

I'm going to be thinking about this one for a bit.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

In defense of Wikipedia




Wikipedia, that much-maligned, online, would-be fount of information has gotten a bad rap from the start. In 2005, author Nicholas Carr critiqued entries on Bill Gates and Jane Fonda as garbage. Even the online encyclopedia's co-founder Jimmy Wales admitted that it has some serious problems with its quality. Part of the problem with Wikipedia as a resource of information stems from what many would-be Wikepedia editors like about it: anyone can edit an article. Last year in an online historical discussion group, the consensus was: stay far away from Wikipedia if you want a real research source.

I'd be with the rest who say don't use it as a resource...if I wasn't a Wikipendian. A Wikipedian is someone who participates in the various Wikipedia-related projects to any extent. My favorite Wikipedia project revolves around the entries about the Nasrid Dynasty.

In the seventeen years of research and writing I did for my Sultana manuscripts, I amassed an incredible amount of information from different sources about my main characters, their rivals and descendants. When I started, the amount of misinformation or the lack of information frustrated me. I had a difficult time accessing materials that were available because they (a) remained under lock and key, untranslated in some far-off mysterious library archive, or (b) existed in some lofty academic research journal that I would have to jump through hoops and obstacles to get. It was easier to sift through the minimal sources I found online to get started and where I found book references that I could buy on Barnes & Noble or Amazon.com, I was in research heaven. Unfortunately, much of any online information about the Nasrid Dynasty is still outdated, with incorrect spellings and dates, bolstered by myths and legends, mixed up in Western fantasies about Orientalism, and just plain and simple, wrong.

Since 2007, I've been working on a Wikipedia project to provide accurate information about the monarchs of the Nasrid Dynasty. I started with simple updates about the lives of the sultans who ruled from 1232 until 1492. Then I started adding entries for the rulers where none previously existed. There are other Wikipedian editors doing the same thing right along with me. It seems we're all operating from the same perspective; making information about a fascinating period of Spanish history, readily accessible to the public.

It is in that goal that Wikipedia needs to be evaluated. Sure, there are scores of people who post information in Wiki articles that are complete fabrications. But some who participate in the project give of their valuable time, share their resources and expand the knowledge base for no other reason than to enrich our understanding. In my editing, I always try to cite corroborating sources, so if there's ever a question about the facts, anyone can go directly to the research materials I've indicated. It's my hope that the articles will become a resource for others who are interested in Nasrid history. I'm happy to play my small part as a Wikipedian.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Joy of Reading


Yesterday, on one of the most amazing, auspicious days in American inaugural history, I took a break from the writing and critiquing I should have been doing, and continued to read a new favorite of mine, David McCullough's John Adams. This book is huge and from the bland blue cover looks like it could be one of the driest pieces of history ever put into print. But it's far from being that.

McCullough's Adams is a vibrant, learned man, standing on the precipice of history, wondering in which direction his country will go but willing to make sacrifices to lead it in that direction. Much like the new US President Obama. McCullogh takes you from pre-Revolutionary New England and the tiny town of Braintree, to the gardens of Paris with an expressive style that any historical fiction author would envy. Or at least this one does.

The Founding Fathers of America have always fascinated me; my favorite is Thomas Jefferson, as much for his convictions as the contradictions of his life. But what is so amazing about this nation's first leaders is how well-read they were, Adams especially. He enjoyed the works of the Roman statesman Cicero and loved to read Greek classics in the original. Not to be outdone, his wife Abigail (can't forget the Founding Mothers) often quoted poetry to him in their wonderful exchange of letters, from memory alone. Adams was a prolific writer, whether in his journal, his communications to family and friends, or in his political statements. He draws on principles of law but also relies on a good dose of common sense to make his arguments.

Between various writing commitments, I can easily get bogged down. But it's nice to be reminded of what drew me into writing historical fiction; the joy of reading.

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Rule of Love

One of two writing projects that I'm hard at work on is The Rule of Love, a fictional account of the origins of the Kama Sutra. My protagonist, Vātsyāyana, learns lessons of love and life in a brothel run by his aunt Chandi and spars with Chandi's servant, the outspoken Sarama about the meaning of those lessons. The women play central roles in the story and in teaching Vātsyāyana, they also learn about the human heart and condition. Each day of writing, I enjoy this story more and more. But I've got to say, it's a pain in the @$$ to research!

If there's one thing I do enjoy as much as writing a historical, it's researching it. That enjoyment is amplified when the research materials are easily accessible. But when your setting is fifth century India and very little is known about your protagonist's life, and you don't live in India with access to materials or the sites featured in your work, especially an India now heavily influenced by the colonials' puritanical beliefs, then research can be a real !@#$%^&*.

What is known about the Kama Sutra's author is that Vātsyāyana lived during the period of the Gupta Empire, a Golden Age of Indian culture from the fourth to sixth centuries AD. It's believed he came from the Brahmin or highest caste in India, the scholarly and priestly caste. And that's about as far as the history goes. There's some speculation about his time in brothels among prostitutes, as per Alain Danielou's commentary on the Kama Sutra, where Vātsyāyana supposedly experienced or practiced some of what's detailed in the section on courtesans. So what am I expected to do in fleshing out the history of a man for whom history has so few details? A lot of extrapolation from other sources and a helluva lot of chasing after every detail I found, that's what.

I spent several weeks last year getting my hands on every book ever published on the Gupta Empire and still remaining in print. That's less than ten. But each offered wonderful kernels of information. While there are few details about my protagonist, there's much more about the time he lived. The Gupta Empire spanned the north of India (close the modern border with Pakistan) for at least two centuries. The court moved between two principal cities, Ujjain, and Pataliputra on the Ganges River, one of India's seven sacred rivers. Very little of Gupta society survives, as they built mainly with wood, except for their art, especially metalwork. A lot of that art is erotic, many involving the depiction of scenes similar to the sexual positions of the Kama Sutra. One of the finest examples of Indian erotic art remains at the Khajuraho Temple, and scenes cover the walls of the temple similar to the one above. Trust me, that sculpture is pretty mild compared to the others showing humans, gods and animals having sex. But neither Khajuraho Temple or the Kama Sutra are about titillation; before the colonial period and influence of the West, there were less hangups about sex and representations of beautiful, naked bodies enjoying it.

I'm currently submitting the first draft of Rule of Love to one of two critique groups. At first, I was very nervous, as I assumed I'd be labeled a pervert. There have been strong reactions from my fellow writers, some negative, some in support. But I couldn't expect to write about the origins of what most people think is only a sex manual, and get mild reactions. The project is also daunting for me as I'm not the first to write a fictional account of Vātsyāyana. I deliberately did not read the Ascetic of Desire, by Sudhir Kakar which appeared in 2000, because I didn't want to be influenced in any way by a critically acclaimed work. That's called plagiarism, boys and girls, and it can sneak in when you're consulting a variety of sources, if you aren't careful to note where you got the information. I did, however read a review and it's interesting that Kakar and I both set our stories in brothels, and the aunt of our mutual protagonist, is named Chandrika in his story but Chandi in mine.

As this is a first draft, I don't know exactly where my writing of Rule of Love will take me, but I hope to convey an accurate sense of the life and times of a man whose work has endured the ages. Wish me luck.

Meet the characters - Sultana Moraima

The character of Moraima becomes one of two protagonists in  Sultana: The White Mountains . She is the beloved wife of her husband, Sultan...