Monday, February 28, 2011

Interview with historical author Miriam Newman

Miriam Newman, who’s been successful with fantasy historicals has just released her first historical novel, The Comet, through DCL Publications. I was lucky enough to get a sneak-preview of her novel, which is set in England during the Norman Conquest, and was captivated by her spunky heroine, who takes her fate into her own hands. I’m pleased to welcome Miriam aboard my blog today for a chat.

Vicky: Hi Miram.  You've been successful in sci-fi/fantasy. What made you decide to try historicals?

Miriam: My futuristic romance, Scion, has been my best seller to date. Yet even in that I found study of Byzantine culture essential to the world building. My award-winning fantasy historicals, The King's Daughter and Heart of the Earth, likewise involved intensive study of Roman Britain, Irish and Nordic history and mythology. For Spirit Awakened, I immersed myself in Native American, Tibetan and Mongolian lore, especially tales of the Golden Horde of Genghis Khan. So finally I decided if I was going to be reading history all the time anyway, I might as well write it.

Vicky: Why the Medieval time period?

Miriam: When I was a small child--maybe about six--I was very sick with what was feared to be appendicitis. I knew that involved an "operation," so I was one scared kid! Well, to calm me, my mother (a rather unusual lady) read me a grisly poem by Longfellow called "The Skeleton in Armor." It's the story of the ghost of a knight who fell on his sword for love of lady fair and now is condemned to wander the earth searching for her. I think today they would call that counter-phobic know, if the kid's scared of surgery we'll give her something to REALLY be scared of. Didn't work. I shot straight to the romantic heart of the poem and conceived a love of Medievals on the spot! I was six years old and had a thing for guys in chain mail. I still do.

Vicky: There have been rumours the Medieval period is "dead" publisher-wise, unless you're writing Medievals set in Scotland. The Comet is set in Southern England during the Norman Conquest. Did you have any feedback from your publisher with the setting you chose?

Miriam: My publisher loved it. She has always given me leeway to write whatever is in my heart at the time. The book is selling, so she's happy!

Vicky: What gave you the idea for The Comet?

Miriam: Researching the Bayeux Tapestry twelve years ago. I was fascinated with the portrayal of William the Conqueror and his men crossing the Channel and conquering England! I have one of those brains that goes darting down every possible alley and, sure enough, it ran away again. It took all those years for the idea to thoroughly percolate, but when it did there was no stopping it. I sat down to write something else and out came The Comet. I had no control.

Vicky: The Comet has really two love stories in it. How do you see those mirroring each other?
Miriam: They really are mirror images. Neel, the hero, can be condescending and arrogant--or at least he comes across that way to Rowena, the heroine. And Rowena has a temper of her own. Daughter and niece of Saxon thegns, she has a sense of her place. Neel's best friend and fellow Norman knight, Gilles, is basically peace-loving and a diplomatic sort. When he encounters Isolde, cast-off mistress of Rowena's late uncle, his heart is touched by her plight. Isolde has accepted, as Rowena never will, that she is at the behest of men She can't really believe it when she finally meets one strong enough to be gentle.

Vicky: The Comet has a spunky heroine who takes her fate into her own hands. What lesson(s) do you think she needs to learn?

Miriam: Rowena starts out a bit too stupid to live, to be honest. But she is very young, as most brides were in that era. She hasn't yet learned to foresee consequences. And once she starts the ball rolling through an act of sheer self will, those consequences and lessons are not long in coming.

Vicky: What made you decide to e-publish?

Miriam: It was sheer chance. I had survived my first hundred rejections from New York--barely--and realized I was writing so far outside their box that I might never get an acceptance from a mainstream publisher. Right about that time, I was on a loop started by a friend and she mentioned that an editor was on there as well and looking for excerpts. I threw one out just for the heck of it and within minutes got an invitation to submit to her epub. The editor was very forthcoming about what I could expect from epub versus print and careful to see that I understood what they could offer. Even so, when the book was accepted, I checked out everything . The publisher was extremely patient, answered all my questions and proceeded to do an excellent job with the book.

Vicky: You've been publishing with DCL Publications for a while now. What made you decide to go with them?

Miriam: I have found them to be kind and ethical. They don't sugar-coat anything, but deal with you fairly. They're supportive, responsive, promote their authors and their quality control is excellent. And I love my editor.

Vicky: Any advice for writers who want to go the e-pub route?

Miriam: Realize that you won't get the exposure and distribution you get through mainstream publishing, at least not yet, and that your earnings may not be high unless you write erotica. Research the pub, look at their other books with an eye to good cover art and editing (both crucial to sales). Be wary of any offer of a quick release date that's established almost before the ink is dry on your contract. If you're a newbie, that may look impressive. Often, it isn't. Go over your contract carefully, preferably consulting an author who is thoroughly experienced in epub. Be sure the epub has a distributor. You'd think that would be a no-brainer, but sometimes they don't. All this being said, I believe epublishing and POD print is the wave of the future. So if you want to get on board, find a publisher who will show you the ropes and go for it.

Vicky: Thanks, Miriam, for your time and your advice!

Monday, February 14, 2011

To E (book) or not to E

These days my closest companion seems to be my Kindle. I got it late in January – it was supposed to be a Christmas present but there was a backorder – and, though I’m still reading conventional print books, I’ve become a convert.

Just for you who e-readers are still alien technology: my Kindle is about the size of trade paperback, but half the thickness of an ordinary book. And half the weight. On the other hand, it can store hundreds of books within its slim frame. When you shut it down, the e-reader remembers where you were in the book and starts it up again on its page. “Turning pages” is easy. Just push a button.

In addition to the standard ability to download and read hundreds of thousands of books, most e-readers also have a few other features that make them in some ways superior to standard print books.

First, you can adjust the size of the print to your eyes. This makes it an attractive option for older readers who need larger print (but don’t want the bigger, heavier book.)

Second, you can highlight passages and bookmark them. This is really convenient for taking notes. For example, Phil and I are thinking about moving to France and bought an e-book about buying a house in France. As I read it, there were things I wanted to mention to Phil. All I did was bookmark them. When it came time for us to talk about what I’d learned, all I had to do was click on the “Read my bookmarks” command and it brought them up, so I could quote to Phil chapter and verse.

Third, there are literally hundreds of books that you can download for free or for only pennies.

On the other hand, downloading a book is so easy – just push the “buy” button and the book is delivered via your wireless network – that it could become a real nightmare for bookstore addicts such as myself. I’m rationing my purchases and reminding myself that my print library still contains 50 to 100 books I haven’t read.

Is print going to become obsolete? With e-book purchases only 6% of current sales, I’d say not in the near future. There’s also the issue of finding a common platform. Different e-readers take different platforms and this is becoming a nightmare for publishers committed to providing books for all their distributers.

But everyone I know who has them has become hooked. (Our household will have a second e-reader by the end of the week, as I’ve gotten one for Phil for his birthday.) And everyone I know who’s had a chance to “play” with one becomes a convert, as well. I think we’re looking at a trend.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Linking Character Arc and Theme – Part 2 (Revisions to my worksheet)

I’ve been working my way through Stan Williams’ book The Moral Premise. This week I finally got to the part where he explains how it’s done.

As I see it, Williams’ concept of a Moral Premise takes theme a step deeper. Theme can be described in one or two words. For example, the theme of Titanic is love. But that’s also the theme of The Notebook, Shrek, and even Lassie Come Home. What makes these movies different is how the theme of love is handled, and that’s where the Moral Premise comes in.

The Moral Premise is the author’s take on how the universe works. In the case of love, it’s the author’s take on how the theme of love works.

Williams gives a formula for how to describe a Moral Premise. It goes like this:

[Vice] leads to [defeat], but
[Virtue] leads to [success].*

Williams gives some of his own examples of how this works, but let’s takes the examples of the love theme I gave above. In Titanic, the Moral Premise would play out as:

Controlling love leads to death, but
Liberating love leads to a fulfilling life.

In Shrek, the Moral Premise is,

Self-loathing leads to loneliness, but
Self-acceptance leads to love.

Same theme, but see how different the approach to love is?

But if you look at both these Moral Premises, you see in them the core of the protagonist’s character journey. The character starts from the position of the vice (being controlled/hating himself) and through the experiences she/he undergoes learns enough to move to the position of the virtue.

Williams points out that the Moral Premise always has two parts. One is the virtue and its consequences; the other is the corresponding vice and its consequences. While in writing a proposal or synopsis, it’s possible to shorten the premise into one part (for example, Titanic’s moral premise could be shortened to “Liberating love leads to a fulfilling life”), ultimately, in developing the structure of a novel or film script, you need to have both. While Williams gives his own reasons for this, for me there’s another reason that’s equally compelling: describing the consequences of the vice, shows the cost of failure. In other words, it makes clear the stakes.

A vice, by the way, doesn't always have to be a vicious trait.  In a comedy or a romance, it could be some character quirk.  For exmaple, in Shrek, Donkey has his own character arc.  His vice is not only that he constantly runs off at the mouth, but that he rattles on with whatever he thinks will please the person he's talking to.  In other words, he's not sincere.  In the end, he changes and tells Shrek what Shrek needs to hear, even though it's not what Shrek wants to hear, "because that's what friends do."  Donkey's own Moral Premise could be described as:
Insincerity leads to loneliness, but
Honesty leads to friendship.
Two weeks ago, in my blog on Tips for Creating a Character Arc, I described the chart that I use. After reading Williams’ book, I now see how I can expand that chart to a deeper level. Here’s what I’ve got so far:
  • Original wrong world view – This is the Vice.
  • How this keeps them apart – This is how the Vice leads to Defeat.
  • Beginning – What does it look like when they’re “doing their thing?” (i.e, practicing the Vice)
  • What happens to force them to do it differently (“Differently” = the Virtue) 
  • They try the different thing and begin to become confident
  • What’s the reward for doing the different thing? (This is the Virtue leads to [temporary or partial] Success)
  • Major setback in doing it differently (because they haven’t applied the Virtue fully or learned it completely)
  • Go back to doing it the old way (which leads to renewed conflict between the hero and heroine and a sense they’ll never get together) (This is a return to the Vice with accelerated or expanded defeat consequences.) 
  • How does this cause them to fail in achieving their non-romance goal? (This is the crisis)(This is the consequences of the Vice).
  • What causes them to take a chance, and do it the new way (This is reapplying the Virtue, only this time with new understanding and awareness.) 
  • Success (this is the climax) (and the consequences of the Virtue)
  • New world view (This is how they’ve changed to incorporate the virtue in other parts of their life and the resulting success in other parts of their life.)
  • How this allows them to get together (dénouement) (In other words, Virtue leads to a happily ever after ending.)
Williams goes into more detail than this, in showing how to fit the Moral Premise into the plot structure. I’ll blog on that next week.

*Location 1784 of my Kindle copy of The Moral Premise by Stanley Williams.