Fiction, Queries, and Voice
March 9, 2007 | Written by admin
I had a bunch of questions come to me the past few days — I’ll try to handle several of them briefly. (And please know you’re always welcome to email me questions you’d like explored on this blog.)
1. Gwynne wrote to say, "When working on historical fiction, if an author is using real people from history and not created characters, what is the author’s responsibility to the character? I sometimes admit to feeling guilty of slander — I’m using real people, but my judgments of their deeds and motivations is quite different than that of historians. What is the ethical line between historical fiction and history?"
I don’t think there is a line connecting them. A novelist who is creating a story and weaving in actual people and events probably owes a debt to the reader to try and get the facts correct, I suppose (though even that is a questionable supposition, and many authors have altered facts and dates in order to tell a better story), but a novel isn’t a textbook. It doesn’t have a restriction that "you must have all your facts correct" or "you must accept the commonly held notions about a character’s motivations." The author is inventing a story to entertain, maybe to explore themes and motivations, not to teach history. So, while I wouldn’t create a story in which the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor on July 11, I see nothing wrong with an author creating a story depicting an interesting twist — that Roosevelt knew about the attack ahead of time, or that it was the attack was a rogue group of Japanese military, or that it was all a mistake. With fiction, it’s the story that counts, not the accuracy of the events. Besides, if we all knew the deeds and motivations of historical events, there would be no need to explore them further. A novel allows us to consider alternative interpretations — that Richard III was actually a good guy, or that Sir Thomas More was a self-absorbed twit, or that Robert E. Lee wasn’t the military genius he’s been made out to be. Sometimes those ideas are daft (Oliver Stone’s movie JFK was filled with tripe and innuendo), other times the ideas can be reasonable (take a look at Elizabeth Peter’s Murders of Richard III). But what your readers care about most is that the story is interesting, emotional, and readable.
2. Mary wrote to ask, "What are you looking for in a query?"
Every time I open a query letter, I’m hoping to see something I fall in love with. I want to see a great idea, supported by great writing, from an author with a great platform. I want to read an idea that makes me go, "Fabulous! Why didn’t I think of that?!" An author platform that shrieks, "I can help support this book!" Writing that hooks me from the first line. It’s rare, but it happens. On the flip side, the thing that makes me immediately plop the query into my "reject" pile is seeing a variation on a theme — something that’s trying to ride the coattails of a project that’s already been done in a big way. (Examples include, "I was thinking we could turn the Book of Revelation into a novel" and "What about a book on making your life more purpose driven?" I’ve seen them both. Recently.)
3. Denise wrote to ask me, "What’s the worst query you ever received?"
This one is easy. All of us have pet peeves — I happen to hate it when an author uses a query letter to sing his or her own praises: "This life-changing book will make you laugh, make you cry, make you quit your job and move to Toledo so you worship at my feet." Fer cryin out loud — let somebody else sing your praises. (The same holds true for competitive analyses in which the author basically bashes everybody else’s book on the topic. Nothing will make you look more like a self-absorbed jerk than to suggest "Jerry Jenkins got it wrong but I’m doing it right.") However, the worst query letter I ever received was from some prophecy nutjob in the Midwest. He claimed (and I swear I’m not making this up) that he and his son were "the two prophets foretold in the Book of Revelation." He informed me that I needed to send him "a contract and a sizable check," and warned that if I didn’t do so, I was incurring God’s wrath. He went on to say I could expect "severe weather patterns" and that God was "going to kick [my] ass." Really. Needless to say, I immediately leaped into action by suggesting he write to Steve Laube.
4. Judy Mikalonis, noting that I often talk about author’s voice in my writings, wrote to share a wonderful quote from a book about voice for singers:
"The singers we love…allow themselves to emerge through their voices. We love to listen to them in part because they teach us to be ourselves, by supplying us with an example of genuine emotion expressed through song. By teaching us acceptance and speaking for us when we feel mute, they effectively unite us with ourselves. These great singers prove that powerful singing is about individuality, separateness, and even courage — it is not about a perfect voice. A singer needs to be a warrior."
This is taken from Carolyn Sloan’s wonderful book Finding Your Voice (Hyperion, 2006). Insert the word "author" for "singer" and she has offered incredible wisdom. Sloan goes on to say,
"We must balance our need to control with a necessity to let go so our true voices can surface. We do not create the voice. The voice is and creates us. It teaches us that we must be open to being stimulated and to experiencing our lives without inhibition… Along with courage and an ability to question, a singer also must have an unfailing persistence and desire to solve what may seem to be unsolvable mysteries."