Voyage to Hellnar

One of the greatest benefits to me of my travel this past spring was two days of horrible weather in Hellnar, Iceland, combined with seldom being able to get my iPad to go online.

I don’t believe in “writer’s block.” I think it’s a bad idea to identify that, and worse to claim it, particularly as writing is (even for people who sell books) pretty much an elective activity, meaning people who don’t write for a living don’t have to write AT ALL and people who do, can go write something else if they find they’re stuck. Nonetheless, I’ve been stuck on the novel I started last year and didn’t know where to go. I didn’t “feel” the characters or like them very much. I wasn’t thrilled about the inevitable trajectory of their story and I couldn’t figure out who the protagonist is/was. I plugged along, but with no inspiration or interest. The only chapter I felt rang true at all was the last chapter, the chapter where their voyage to America… I’m not telling.

Yeah. I think it’s good to know where you’re going.

I had put my novel on my iPad thinking I might find inspiration during the week I spent in Switzerland. I was staying in the valley where the characters in my novels — all except Martin of Gfenn — lived. But, no…

I know some facts about the characters. They are based on my ancestors — loosely because no one really knows anything about them except the bare facts of their lives — name, birthplace, death. That’s really a lot to have already set out for you.

So, in Hellnar, while my friend realized her dream (it was mine, too, but there was no way it was going to happen then or there) of riding Icelandic Horses, I sat at a table beside one of the pretty windows in the pretty cottage on the dramatic peninsula with the fabulous (hidden by fog; see photo above) glacier covered volcanic cone, the very volcano Jules Verne had chosen as the entry point in his novel Journey to the Center of the Earth. 

Looking out on the bleak landscape, at the wet and wind-blown clothespins and the futile clothesline, I thought of the widescreen TV up the sadistic stairs/ladder that I could not climb, and I found the whole situation hilariously funny. At that point I opened the file on my iPad and wrote.

There was nothing else to do. 

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The thing about writing — art? is that sometimes it’s like a mad infatuation; sometimes it’s slogging through a boring Sunday with someone who (for the moment) sets your teeth on edge; sometimes you need couple’s counseling. I have thought a lot about being a writer and how that’s gone for me. If success means being commercially published and putting out one bestseller after another, I’m no success. If success means doing your best at what you do and not giving up and giving a few people pleasure when they read your novels, I’m a star. 🙂  I started very young — I couldn’t even read when I started writing stories. I scribbled and my dad read. I don’t know why I did that; I think because they read to me a lot and I enjoyed it, I got the idea early that writing a story was a very exciting thing to do.

I wrote a lot of things — poetry, editorials, articles, memoirs — some of it got published and some of it won prizes and one bit got me kicked out of school. In my late 20s, I spent happy snowy Saturdays working on a “novel” which now people would call “creative non-fiction.” I still plug away at that thing. I still love it. Then for a while I essentially transcribed my life; I wrote conversations I had had with people and cut out everything around them to bring the story out of the conversation, like a line drawing in which some of the lines are just implied. I recently found the notebook containing all those “stories” and there are 200 pages in there. I wrote my thoughts, my questions; I kept journals.

At one point in my life — in my 20s — my mom said, “You’re a good writer, but you don’t have a story yet.” It took a long time for me to find “my” story.

To be an artist means: not to calculate and count; to grow and ripen like a tree which does not hurry the flow of its sap and stands at ease in the spring gales without fearing that no summer may follow. It will come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are simply there in their vast, quiet tranquility, as if eternity lay before them. Rilke

I’m happy that now this story is coming along. It’s become fun to write.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/voyage/

Good News for the Schneebeli Brothers

Strasbourg_-_Ponts_Couverts_vus_de_la_terrasse_panoramique

Strasbourg, one city in the novel.

My newest novel, The Brothers Path (working title: The Schneebeli Brothers Go to Church) has been accepted by two publishers for publication.The first offer came with very clear information about the terms of the contract if I chose to go with them. The second didn’t come with any terms at all, just the information that they would have the book vetted by an expert historian and I might have to make changes. I emailed them back with questions the first publisher had answered and I’m waiting for their response.

As I was walking the dogs this afternoon, I thought about how teaching business communication changed me. When I wrote Martin of Gfenn I was primarily interested in the historical accuracy of the book. I even found a Swiss Medievalist Historian to help me and we became friends. When I was given an offer by an agent, I didn’t ask any questions. I just said, “Yes!” Now — almost 20 years later — I’m very concerned with the bottom line and I also get some information from the WAY people communicate with me. The first publisher was far more businesslike and that impressed me. I want business people in charge of my novel because I want it to be successful out there in the world. BUT they are also a “print on demand” company and that means they have little clout when it comes to getting books into actual brick and mortar store. They were up front about this which also impressed me.

So I feel a little disappointed and lonely at this moment. I guess I wanted — hoped — the second publisher would present something comparable so I could sit down and evaluate the opportunities in a businesslike way. It’s one thing to “love” a book it’s another to believe you can sell the book. The first publisher made no comments about liking the book or why. That was fine. By wanting to publish the book, I knew they liked the book. The second wrote, “This novel is very well done and hard to put down!” I’m happy about that but, at this moment, I want to know something about how they plan to sell it, where, my take, etc. Perhaps that’s information I would get by saying, “Yes,” but I can’t say “Yes” without knowing what I’m saying “Yes” to.

Another development in my writing consciousness is that while I hope other people like the book (even love the book) the only love relationship that really matters to me is that between the idea and my mind leading to the creative effort to realize the idea. I also thought of last fall when I began the ill-fated (for me) writers workshop and dealt with comments from my uncomprehending “class”mates. “This is like Tolstoy. I don’t know how you’ll ever finish it.” “This reminds me of The Brothers Karamasov.” OK, I like Russian novels, but the book is NOTHING like Tolstoy OR Dostoyevsky.

I remember comments such as, “If I can’t keep track of the characters, no one can.” “These German names are impossible to remember. Change them to something your reader can identify with.” This was written by a young woman, an angry, lesbian social worker. I felt amused (and a little frustrated) that I couldn’t turn around write about her story, “Quit writing about lesbians. I can’t relate to that. Write about normal heterosexual relationships.’ It would have been petty “revenge” not a wake-up call to her. She would have called me insensitive to LGBT “issues.” (Which I am most certainly NOT.) My contempt for them led me to drop out with a lame excuse about “good news” about my book, good news I didn’t have, but hoped for without expecting it.

Maybe they were right and Heinrich, Hannes, Conrad, Peter, Andreas, Thomann along with Vreni, Verena, Katharina and Rudolf were names too alien and their intertwining stories too complex, but I also remember that snowy afternoon when I sat down at my drawing table with my 24 x 36 newsprint pad and charted out the lives of the brothers, their intersections with each other and with history. I believed any half intelligent reader could sort out both the family relationships and the names, that no real reader wants the same story they’ve read before. It seems I was right.

I should be excited — over the moon! — I’ve waited so long for this. All my life? Instead of excitement, I feel a coldness, that what matters most is that my book get its best shot and that things will soon change. At times like this I guess it’s natural to wish for someone who would say, “I’m so proud of you! Let me take you out for dinner! Champagne!” because it is really that kind of moment. I don’t feel sorry for myself because there is no such person in my life; that’s OK. If there were, maybe the Schneebeli brothers would never have gone to church?

I’m going to Switzerland next May. I decided to look for people with my family name in the village where I’m staying. There are three. One is the fire chief. And their names? Hans Peter. Hans Jorg. Uschi. I wonder? Should I find out?

Cutting My Losses??? Buy a Lawn Mower Instead???

http://www.wandersite.ch/Hoehenweg_Zuerich_Gotthard.html#1.

Pondering NOT attending the Historical Novel Society conference. In reading over the information about the agents who will be there, there’s no one who’s likely to be interested in my book. In looking at the offerings for sessions, nothing appeals to me at all. The only thing is I spent $$ on promotional materials for my book signing and I paid for the conference, but I could recoup the hotel costs and find something more fun to do with a weekend in June. I read a a couple of very honest and straightforward blog posts yesterday on why books don’t sell.

One key point was this, “15: Setting and storyline. If it’s fiction, having a setting outside of America, England or Ireland. “Because I love Russia (or Africa or Thailand)” just plain rarely sells well in America. Or having a storyline that is not entertaining—and very hard—to read (i.e. child abuse, sexual abuse, deaths of key characters).” My books 1) are not set in America, 2) are hard to read — they deal with tough subjects and key characters die.

Anyway, it’s a useful post by an agent whom, I thought, might be a fit for me. After looking at dozens of books — historical fiction — represented by his agency, he’s no fit at all.

The question comes back to why write. I think there are more reasons people write than they read. Not everything we write should be published. I’m the first to agree — but as the blog post points out, on any given day, 100,000 people start a blog on WordPress. Why? I wonder if that’s true or if it’s an exaggeration? I started keeping a blog here — a public blog — because I read a book that said an aspiring novelist needed to build a platform on WordPress. So, I did.

The blog posts (WordPress blogs, by the way) go on to say that bad words are, uh, bad  and that people who use them risk not being published or selling. I don’t like that world. I am as morally opposed to THAT as people who hate bad words are morally opposed to bad words. Imagine! Yet in none of my novels are there any “bad” words. Why? They don’t fit the characters, the time or the place. Fuck no. It’s got nothing to do with whether I “like” bad words or not. It has to do with the story. The scale, though. I’m opposed to censorship; they’re opposed to a few words. Which is the larger world view? And what world do I want to live in? And then…what world DO I live in?

I feel like a stranger in a strange land. Anyway, here are link 1 and  link 2 to these useful posts for anyone who’d like some straight-from-the hip commentary from an extremely successful agent with one foot heavily in the Christian book “genre”.

Didn’t We Just Write This?

Daily Prompt Coming To a Bookshelf Near You Write a summary of the book you’ve always wanted to write for the back cover of its dust jacket.

Yes we did. On April 25, barely a week ago. If you’d like to read that one, here it is.

SO…since I’m engaged at the moment in all that kind of stuff for the Schneebelis, here’s the synopsis for that books. A point: I’ve discovered that there is a lot of debate about what a synopsis is. To resolve that debate, here’s what I’ve determined after reading all kinds of very strong opinions on this topic. Some are for the jacket of a book and they’re supposed to create interest and suspense. Some are supposed to summarize the story for someone who wants to know the whole tale before they decide to ask for a manuscript. I have written the second kind because I’m a lot closer to submitting a manuscript to someone than I am to a book jacket.

Synopsis: THE BROTHERS PATH

THE BROTHERS PATH is a work of historical fiction set near Zürich, Switzerland, between 1524 and 1532, during the religious upheaval and political power struggles we know as the Protestant Reformation. It is 68,000 words.

Religious dissent comes from all directions in 16th century Zürich. THE BROTHERS PATH looks at the real-life changes the Protestant Reformation brings to one Swiss family. It chronicles the experiences of the six Snow brothers, Heinrich, Hannes, Peter, Conrad, Thomann and Andreas, from Apple Tree Village in the southeastern corner of Canton Zürich. Each brother navigates his own path through, around or directly into the dramatic changes. As family members interact, beliefs and convictions come into conflict beginning in the first chapter when the question of infant baptism starts a family argument.

Through the next eight tumultuous and bloody years, Heinrich, the oldest brother, keeps the mill running and fears for the future of his brothers and his children. Hannes, the second son, given by his parents to the church when he was a child, falls in love and leaves the church so he can marry; Peter, the third son, trades the gorgeous trappings of military leadership for the robes of a Dominican; Conrad, the fourth son, finds he cannot ignore the violent changes all around him when all he holds dear is taken from him; Thomann, the fifth brother, an Anabaptist, is forced to flee Switzerland for sanctuary in Strasbourg, and Andreas, the youngest, is disappointed in love with disastrous results. The novel climaxes on October 11, 1531, when Hannes is killed at the Second War of Kappel, a brief, ill-fated war between Zürich’s army of 2000 men and the forces of the Inner (Catholic) cantons aided by their Habsburg allies totaling 7000 troops. The battle is also the climax of historical events in the Zürich Reformation as the leader, Huldrych Zwingli, is killed on that day. After the war, life returns to normal for the surviving brothers.

The plot of THE BROTHERS PATH is determined by historical events and includes some of the principal actors in the religious revolution, including Huldrych Zwingli, Leo Jud, Felix Manz and Pilgram Marpeck. The novel centers on the clashes between the Catholics, Evangelicals and Anabaptists as new visions of the relation of God to man transform Europe.

Themes in THE BROTHERS PATH include family relationships, romantic love, faith and despair. Two hundred years after the events recounted in THE BROTHERS PATH, many thousands of immigrants left Switzerland and the upper Rhine region and came to America looking for safety and freedom they had not been able to find at home. If the novel teaches a “lesson” it would be a reminder why immigrants to America were so adamant about separating church and state.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_prompt/coming-to-a-bookshelf-near-you/

Scheebelis One-Page Synopsis — Are You Curious?

I’m looking for feedback on my synopsis — feedback of any kind. This is not the cover blurb, but a somewhat more detailed synopsis that would be used to interest an agent in the novel (and used by an agent to sell the novel to a publisher). Most pressing is whether it makes you want to read the book, but I’m grateful for anything else! Thank you!

***

THE SCHNEEBELI BROTHERS GO TO CHURCH tells about the experiences of the six Schneebeli brothers — Heinrich, Hannes, Peter, Conrad, Thomann and Andreas — from Affoltern, a village in Canton Zürich, during what we now call the Protestant Reformation. The novel is set between June 1524 and June 1532, during intense religious upheaval and political power struggles. The story revolves around the emergence of the Swiss Evangelical Church (Zwingli’s church) and the rise of Anabaptism (rebaptizers). Each brother navigates his own path through, around or directly into the dramatic changes.The story draws on historical fact, but it is fiction. It includes the historical figures of Huldrych Zwingli, Leo Jud, Felix Manz and Pilgram Marpeck.

The overall plot is driven by historical events and, as each brother has a unique relationship to those events, each brother has his own story. In this way, the plot is character driven. The individual “plots” of each life intersect the “plots” of the lives of other family members, beginning in the first chapter in which the question of infant baptism nearly starts a family fight.

The story opens with the birth and death of Rudolf. Nineteen year old Andreas is the only family member home when Rudolf is born. Andreas does not believe in infant baptism, so he does not baptize the his little brother. Rudolf’s death is followed soon after by the death of Verena, the mother of all the Schneebeli boys. Hannes, the second son (in his late twenties), a Cistercian monk, arrives in time to give Last Rites to Verena so she dies in a state of grace. Infant Rudolf’s lack of baptism brings the central question of the story to a head immediately as Rudolf cannot be buried with his mother in sanctified ground. The novel climaxes seven years later at the Second War of Kappel which took place on October 11, 1531. It was a short deadly battle between Zürich’s army of 2000 men (800 troops were lost; the rest ran away) and the forces of the Inner (Catholic) cantons aided by their Habsburg allies totaling 7000 troops. The battle is also the climax of historical events in the Zürich Reformation as the leader, Huldrych Zwingli, was killed on that day. After the war, life returns more or less to normal for the surviving brothers all of whom seem likely to live happily ever after.

Themes in the novel include family relationships, romantic love, faith and despair. Two hundred years after the events in my novel, many thousands of immigrants did come to America from Switzerland and the upper Rhine region, looking for safety and freedom they had not been able to find at home. If the novel teaches a “lesson” it would be a reminder why immigrants to America were so adamant about separating the church from the state.

The novel is 65,000 words.

Write MORE

After my epiphany some years back (5?) with Martin of Gfenn and Truman Capote, I began to write in a more minimalist way. I try to let a story carry itself and I try to let the characters live their own lives without a lot of step-by-step commentary from me. However…

Wanting to sell a novel, I decided to find out what publishers expect a historical novel to be in the most mechanical terms. One of those very mechanical terms is length. It seems strange, it seems arbitrary, but a historical novel is “supposed” to be at least 80,000 words. The irony is that for most writers this is a target to which they need to edit down their work. I’m having a hell of a time reaching it. I’m a writer who believes in letting characters speak and reveal themselves; I’m a writer who likes the in medias res approach to action.

Where does the number come from? It comes from several places, I think, but one is what buyers expect when they plunk down their $20 for a paperback book. Savior is just about 70,000 words, and I’m sure that’s one reason it was ultimately rejected by a publisher who expressed very strong interest in it after my query.

One thing I learned in my short-lived participation in the writer’s workshop is that what I think is good writing is obscure and difficult to others. I also learned that there is a certain reciprocity to that which isn’t the result of bias since my classmates had no features (no photos) and I was not able to keep them separate in my mind. But, the work I read by classmates that I did like was seldom the work written by the classmates who didn’t like my writing style. It appears that readers are two-way mirrors. We look for ourselves and look at ourselves.

So I’m struggling with the Schneebelis, now just at 60k words, to get their story to the 80k mark. There are places to which I’d always planned to return, elements I’d always planned to include but did not have the historical background when I blocked in the episodes. I’m hoping that as I wander through the manuscript, making these changes and adding some development, that I’ll reach the mark.

 

Dealing with a Stupid, Recycled Prompt…

Daily Prompt Five a Day You’ve being exiled to a private island, and your captors will only supply you with five foods. What do you pick?

“Espresso (made with Lavazza Crema di Gusto or Starbucks Verona), heavy cream, honeycrisp apples, good Italian bread and cheese.”

“Lamont, that isn’t even a complete sentence,”

“What’s the point, Dude? This is not only a stupid prompt, it’s a recycled prompt. I am sure WordPress has thousands of prompts to choose from. They could choose something interesting. If I were back in my paranoid state, I’d think they’re doing this on purpose to alienate the people who want to write the Daily Prompt, but that’s illogical. They have nothing to gain by alienating us. I’ve given up hoping for something better. If I complain, they’ll just say that prompts of this banal stupidity are good for new writers bloggers.”

“So is this finished?”

“I guess so. I guess now I have to go back to line edits in the Schneebelis.”

“How’s that going?”

“I don’t know. I’m not sure it’s really ready to send out to people, though.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. It’s about 40 pages too short.”

“How do you KNOW that? That seems so arbitrary!”

“No, it isn’t. Readers of historical fiction have expectations; publishers have a bottom line, and I think there are parts of the book that are extremely tedious to read — lots of discussion about what’s going on in the world, maybe not enough about the world in which the people live.”

“You can fix that, right, Lamont?”

“Oh yeah. There are other places where I’ve done that so I just have to match them up, so to speak. It’s difficult to write about this period, to get the facts right and I think that’s important, but that doesn’t make a novel. A couple of characters need to be more three-dimensional and that will help them come out as humans.”

“There’s really no rush, is there, Lamont?”

“Not a rush. But I’d like a good clean draft by the end of June.”

“Is that possible?”

“I don’t honestly know. Possibly. It’s still just February and, anyway, it’s not like there’s a gun at my head.”

“I’ll try to keep you supplied with honeycrisp apples, coffee, cream, bread and cheese.”

“Thanks, Dude.”

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_prompt/five-a-day/

Which Opening….

…would Involve You More Quickly In this Novel? Thank you!!!!

Rudolf June, 1524

“Where is Hannes?” Old Johann paced back and forth just outside the gate to the courtyard, in earshot of the house. “He’ll be here, Father. I told Thoman to hurry.” “Why didn’t Thoman take a horse?” “I don’t know. He should have.” “Pray God he gets here before it’s too late.” The old man crossed himself. Thoman and Hannes appeared at the bottom of the hill, running, Hannes lifting his priest robes so he would not trip. Inside, Verena lay exhausted on the bed where hours earlier she had given birth to a tiny boy, two months before term. She had wept weakly and named him Rudolf. Verena had already several grandchildren. “Go!” said Old Johann to Hannes. “There’s no time to waste.” Hannes found Verena wavering between worlds. He looked over at tiny baby in the carefully padded apple box. The midwife who tended Verena sat with slumped shoulders, her face red with crying, knowing why Hannes was there and what  lay ahead. “Mother,” he began, but his voice caught in his throat. He squeezed his eyes tightly together and shook his head to regain himself. ”Sister Verena.” He swallowed and began again, placing her rosary in her hands. “Do you sincerely beg our Lord for forgiveness of your sins?” Verena nodded. He opened the cross-shaped, silver box he wore on his belt for the services of Last Rites and took out a small vial of Holy Oil and a wafer that had been blessed by the Holy Father in Rome. With the oil, he traced the shape of a cross on his mother’s forehead and placed the wafer between her lips. He knew she could not eat it, but it would protect her from Satan who could be lurking anywhere to jump into one of the body’s openings and steal Verena’s soul at the last minute. “May our Heavenly Father pardon thee whatever sins or faults thou hast committed. In the name of our Savior, Jesus Christ, his holy mother, Mary, St. John the Baptist, St. Joseph and St. Verena, name saint of our sister, my mother, Verena.” He made the sign of the cross over her body. Verena soon followed the infant Rudolf in death. ————————

Rudolf June, 1524

Brother Hannes found Verena lying on the bed where hours earlier she had given birth to a tiny boy, two months before term. She had wept weakly and named him Rudolf. Hannes looked over at tiny baby in the carefully padded apple box. The midwife sat with slumped shoulders, her face red with crying, knowing why Hannes was there and what lay ahead. Verena wavered now between two worlds. “Mother,” he began, but his voice caught in his throat. He squeezed his eyes together and shook his head to regain himself. ”Sister Verena.” He swallowed and began again, placing her rosary in her hands. “Do you sincerely beg our Lord for forgiveness of your sins?” Verena nodded. He opened the cross-shaped, silver box he wore on his belt for the services of Last Rites and took out a small vial of Holy Oil and a wafer that had been blessed by the Holy Father in Rome. With the oil, he traced the shape of a cross on his mother’s forehead and placed the wafer between her lips. He knew she could not eat it, but it would protect her from Satan who could be lurking anywhere to jump into one of the body’s openings and steal Verena’s soul at the last minute. “May our Heavenly Father pardon thee whatever sins or faults thou hast committed. In the name of our Savior, Jesus Christ, his holy mother, Mary, St. John the Baptist, St. Joseph and St. Verena, name saint of our sister, my mother, Verena.” He made the sign of the cross over her body. Verena soon followed the infant Rudolf in death.