Jack Hight

Author of Historical Fiction

Archive for March, 2010

A quote from my guestbook:  Very exciting period in history. I know you will be a successful [writer] and perhaps compete with Dostoevsky my favorite writer.

First of all, I very much appreciate the sentiment!  More to the point for this blog entry, I’m glad that someone mentioned the connection between me and Dostoevsky, because it was bound to come up eventually.  The similarities are too obvious to miss.  Dostoevsky was Russian; I mention the czar in the epilogue to Siege.  Alyosha, the main character of the classic novel The Brothers Karamazov is an Orthodox priest; one of the main characters of Siege is an Orthodox priest.  In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov murders a pawnbroker; in Siege, many, many people are murdered.  Dostoevsky was one of the founders of psychological realism; I am real.

Well, maybe we don’t have that much in common.  But there is one thing that I love about Dostoevsky, and which I strive to emulate in my own work: he is a great example of how even popular literature can address big questions.  Because make no mistake, Dostoevsky was popular in his day.  He wasn’t writing in an effort to plumb the depths of the human soul (or at least not primarily).  He was writing to make money.  Dostoevsky was a gambling addict who was often desperate for cash.  It is said that he dashed off Crime and Punishment in a frantic hurry after a particularly long losing streak left him penniless.

It often seems like genre fiction is the place where big ideas come to die.  Authors get so caught up in telling a good story that they forget that part of what can make a story good is that it gets people thinking.  Dostoevsky never lost sight of this.  In all his books, he struggles with important questions of morality.  While serving out a sentence in a Siberian labor camp, he had a conversion experience and remained a devout Orthodox Christian from that point.  But his faith was troubled by questions being raised at the time in Western philosophy.  Namely: if God exists and is just, then why must the innocent suffer?  Or, the inverse, if God does not exist, then is everything permitted?  Or at the very least, is it permitted to do wrong in the service of a greater good?  These are big questions, which Dostoevsky tackles most directly in The Brothers Karamazov.  One of the eponymous brothers, Ivan Karamazov complains that he cannot understand a God who allows children to die bloody deaths (an aside: Dostoevsky collected newspaper clipping of atrocities involving children) or why we must wait until the afterlife for justice.  Faced with the seeming contradiction of good people suffering, Ivan rejects God and declares that “everything is lawful.”  In Doestoevsky’s work, the failure of Ivan’s creed is shown though the failure of his life.  Still, perhaps the most frequently cited idea from this, Dostoevsky’s greatest novel, is the concept that if there is no God, “everything is lawful.”

I am fascinated with the questions Dostoevsky raises, which is one of the reasons that I too love his books.  And while my books aim to be rollicking adventures, not gripping portraits of psychological reality, I still think it is important to deal with big questions.  In particular, Siege, and even more so the Saladin Chronicles, address one of the same questions that bothered Dostoevsky: is it right to do wrong in the service of a greater good?  Or, to put it more precisely in the context of my books: is it worth sacrificing one’s honor to achieve greatness, or is greatness achieved precisely through adhering to one’s honor?

Now, don’t run and hide just because I’ve admitted that my books address a larger theme.  They are still fun to read!  In fact, I think they are more fun to read precisely because they grapple with questions larger than who is going to kill who.  I’ll go a step further and say that dealing with these sorts of questions is precisely what separates good from run-of-the-mill genre fiction.  All writers can’t be Russian gambling addicts obsessed with atrocities involving children (what a shame…), but we could all use a little Dostoevsky in our writing.

Next time: Sequels (on the importance of thinking ahead)

For the last few days, I have been obsessively checking my email.  I check it when I get up.  I check it during breakfast.  I check it again when I arrive at the coffee shop where I work.  After that, I check it every five to ten minutes during the day.  Why?  What is driving this compulsion?  I am waiting for a particular email: from my editor, Kate.

A week and a half ago, I sent a draft of my novel Eagle to Kate, and like any author, I crave feedback.  I want to know what she thought worked and what she thinks needs fixing.  More than anything, I want to how much she liked the book.  I want validation.  And I do not think I am alone here.  Every writer that I have met shares my desire for positive feedback.  Especially unpublished authors—who don’t have sales to bolster their self-confidence—long to have people tell them that their work is worthwhile.  When I first finished SIEGE, I wanted to show it to everybody I knew, so that they would tell me that I was not wasting my time, that I was talented, that it was only a matter of time before my book became a bestseller.

This sort of feedback is not only gratifying; it is vital in reinforcing our identity as writers.  What’s more, critical comments are important in helping us improve our work.  However, not all feedback is equally useful.  There is a time and place for it.  If you get feedback at the wrong time, from the wrong person, it can be confusing or even harmful.  And the people who give feedback are not inexhaustible resources.  You don’t want to use them up before you really need them.  So let’s talk about when to get feedback, and who to get it from.

I’ll start with “who.”  The short answer is: not everybody!  You may really want to show your manuscript to every member of your family (I actually did), but be prepared for vague, useless, or even dispiriting feedback (i.e. don’t quit your day job).  Your family and friends will be more impressed when you hand them an actual book.  So I recommend only showing your manuscript to people who will give you quality comments that will improve your novel.  They need to be people whose insights you trust.  I showed Siege to maybe ten people.  Half gave me only vague feedback.  Sometimes vague feedback can be good.  More than one person told me the beginning of the early drafts was slow.  That was something I needed to know.  But in general, it wasn’t very useful.  As a writer, you need to identify a good support group: which means finding people whose input you value and trust.

Now for the “when.”  I never ask more than two people for comments on any given draft of a novel.  There are two reasons for this.  First, the more people I ask, the more varied the responses I receive.  Why waste time sorting through contradictory advice?  Second, different people give different types of feedback.  Some are good with plot, others with characters, others with writing.  And if I’m still hammering out the plot, it will do me no good to send my manuscript to a friend whose strength is commenting on my prose.

My wife is always the first person I ask for feedback.  She is the only person I ask to read my first draft.  She is great at telling me what storylines I need to expand on and which ones need to be condensed.  She always spots good characters.  In short, she can tell me what is good and ask for more of it.  This is hugely important when writing a first draft!

Other readers are better at helping me with the mechanics of writing.  My friend Lane, who is a screenwriter, is wonderful at zeroing in on problems with plot or characters.  My agent, Ian, is also good at telling me where the plot doesn’t work and at getting me to think about the larger picture: how my novel might fit into a series, for instance.  I get Lane and Ian’s feedback on my second draft.

I don’t show my third draft to anybody.  By the end of the third draft, I have figured out my character and plot, and in the fourth draft I focus on my writing.  I prefer to polish my prose myself.  Others may work differently, but I have a hunch that too much feedback on one’s prose at too early a date can kill one’s unique authorial voice.

My fourth draft goes to my editor, Kate.  And yes, that means that I’ve written four drafts before my actual editor even sees the book!  Why?  Precisely because Kate gives such good feedback.  She is great at providing holistic advice covering plot issues, logical inconsistencies, slow points, and style.  But nobody can give their best feedback the third or fourth time they have read something.  So I save Kate for the fourth draft, when the sort of all-encompassing overview she provides is exactly what I need.

Do you hear that, Kate?  (Ahem.)  Your feedback is exactly the kind I need.  (Hint, hint.)  So anytime you want to get back to me on Eagle…

Next time: Me and Dostoevsky

The Guide to Literary Agents—an extremely useful book that helped me to find my agent—suggests that budding authors go to book fairs to meet potential agents.  So in the spring of 2008, I dutifully hopped on the train from Paris and headed to England for the London Book Fair.  Unfortunately, what The Guide didn’t tell me was how to go about meeting agents at book fairs.  As it turns out, there is a right way and a horribly wrong, painful way.  I experienced them both.

I had no idea what to expect when I arrived in London.  I had never been to a book fair before.  It was spectacular in the truest sense of the word: a show worthy of being observed.  If you think of a typical bookstore as a human body—general fiction making up the torso, travel literature the feet, history the right arm, and so on—then a book fair is a bit like twenty bodies that have been massacred and their parts strewn all about.  It’s messy, overwhelming, and while it holds a certain fascination, after a while you just want to look away.

The London Book Fair occupies the entirety of the Earls Court convention center, a sprawling, warehouse-like structure that covers maybe three football pitches.  This space is filled with booths set up by publishers.  They range from tiny cubicles with little more than a chair and a bookshelf, to sprawling platforms with hundreds of books and separate conference rooms.  As far as I can tell, the publishers are there to meet with literary agents and purchase the rights to books, to network with suppliers (printers and the like), to publicize their upcoming books, to make connections with booksellers, and, most importantly, to get out of the office.  While the big publishers—Random House, HarperCollins, Quarto, etc.—certainly had imposing displays, I was more intrigued by the amazing degree of specialization of some of the smaller publishers.  I saw a booth containing only cookbooks, another for a publisher that specialized in books on plants, and a third displayed only children’s books about pirates.  On the one hand, this is great if I ever get around to writing my own pirate book for kids (tentatively titled Argh!  Where’s Me Booty?): I’ll know exactly who to take it to.  On the other hand, I couldn’t help but wonder about the poor editor who must spend all his or her time scouring the globe for the next great children’s book about pirates.  I guess that beats editing books on plants for a living.  “Flowers are so last year… tubers are the next big thing!”

But I digress.  The publishers’ booths are not the part of the fair that interested me.  I was there to meet agents, and they are mostly to be found tucked away upstairs in the relative calm and quiet of the International Rights Center.  Hundreds of literary agencies from around the world have tables here, where they meet with publishers to try to sell book rights.  Theoretically, the space is supposed to be limited to agents and publishers—i.e. unpublished authors like me are not supposed to be able to walk in and harass people.  However, by avoiding the escalator and taking the stairs, I managed to avoid the staffers who were supposed to check my credentials.  (I will leave it to you to conjecture what the lack of stairwell security says about people in the publishing industry.)  I had already made a list of agents that I was interested in meeting.  So, after wandering around a bit to get my bearings and summon up my courage, I sauntered over to an agent’s table and introduced myself.

This was a bad idea.  Approaching people cold is not, repeat NOT, the right way to meet agents at a book fair.  The agents are there to meet with publishers, and most of them have busy schedules.  The International Rights Center is hidden away upstairs precisely so that they will not have to put up with importunate fools like me.  So, in hindsight, I should not have been surprised when the poor old fellow that I approached reacted to me like I was some sort of venomous snake.  As I told him about my book, he refused to make eye contact, shied away, then eventually asked me “how did you get in here” before getting up and peremptorily walking off.  Needless to say, at that moment I had rather grave doubts about the wisdom of meeting agents at book fairs.  I was starting to think that I had wasted good money on my train ticket to London.

Luckily, I had also set up two meetings with agents the right way.  Several months before the book fair, I had sent out query letters to a few agents, describing Siege and informing them that I would be at the London Book Fair if they were interested in meeting.  After several emails back and forth, two agents agreed to meet with me.  Both eventually offered to represent me.  Did showing up at the book fair make the difference?  I don’t know.  But it definitely showed that I was serious, and it gave me an opportunity to meet two extremely nice, professional agents who, even had they not offered to take me on, still provided some great advice on both Siege and my career.  Most importantly, I got to meet my future agent, which is something I highly recommend.  After all, it’s nice to have met face-to-face the man or woman who will be holding the fate of your precious book in his or her hands.

In the end, I left the London Book Fair happy, and I have fond memories of it.  Just don’t ever make me go again.

Next time: Feedback (on knowing who to listen to, and when to listen)

Last week, I finished draft 3 of my next novel, Eagle (pats self on back).  The third draft is my favorite one to write.  Why?  Well, in my second blog entry (Finishing the Novel), I wrote about how producing multiple drafts makes writing easier.  Instead of worrying about plot, characters, and my prose all at once, I can focus on one thing at time.  It’s easier, faster, and in the end, produces a better product.

So on draft 1, I just work on getting the bones of the story down and finding each character’s voice.  This is a lot to do: the first draft of Siege took about a year; that of Eagle took five months.  The plot will still have some holes.  The characters will not be perfectly consistent or fully developed.  And while I try to write as well as possible, I don’t fret over every line.  The results are far from perfect.  In fact, they are often comical.  I have a tendency to subconsciously insert malapropisms into my writing, which always bring a smile to my face when I catch them later.  Two good ones from Eagle: “he knelt before the author” instead of “before the altar”; and “two-dozen writers in silver chainmail, broke from the hills” instead of “two-dozen riders.”  While the mental image provided by the second malapropism is wonderful, I like the first even better.  Obviously, I think very highly of my craft.

The first draft is a work that is still in progress.  As I write it, I make a list of all the things that I know will need to be fixed in the next draft.  These range from plot details to insert, to scenes to add, to information that I need to research, to chapters that I know will need to be deleted or condensed.  After draft 1 of Eagle, I had about fifty points in my list, ranging from “more on the Bedouin — have them save Yusuf in chapter 10” to “look up the dates of Ramadan for each year and make sure the Muslim characters don’t eat during the day.”

In draft 2, I incorporate all of these changes, and I focus on perfecting the plot and pacing.  I start by doing a reverse outline, which includes four to six word description of every chapter and scene in draft 1.  This outline is much easier to work with than the full text when it comes to making sure that scenes are in the right order or finding scenes that need to be cut.  Once I have the reverse outline down, I go through the text, cutting slow or unnecessary scenes and writing new ones where needed.  The goal is a fast moving story wherein every scene contributes to the plot, and where the details of the plot all make sense.  In a lot of ways, this draft is the most intellectually challenging and the most important.  It ensures that I avoid plot holes or dead spots in the book.  The second draft of Eagle took me three months.  It was time well spent.

As I said above, draft 3 is my favorite.  Here, the focus is on characters and themes.  I want to make sure that my characters are properly motivated, and that they behave consistently from scene to scene.  They shouldn’t be fine with their lot as a slave in one scene, only to have them plotting to escape five pages later.  (This happened in one of the early drafts of Eagle.  Oops.)  They shouldn’t make advances on the king’s wife, only to then to react with horrified indignation when she suggests they sleep together.  And, if they are shy, brave, or witty, then they should be consistently shy, brave, or witty.  Otherwise, the reasons for their personality shift need to be clearly laid out.  Each character also needs to have a clear voice, so that the reader can identify who is speaking, even when I don’t tell them.  Draft 3 is my favorite because for me, developing characters is the most satisfying part of writing.  Plot is fun, but characters are what will make your work come alive.

The fourth draft—the one I’m working on now—is where I finally start to focus on the actual writing.  I make sure that my descriptions are vibrant (i.e. “she had emerald eyes and smooth, golden skin the color of the desert sands,” not “she was beautiful”).  I make sure to show, not tell (“his jaw clinched,” not “he was angry).  I declare war on adverbs.  I avoid clichés like the plague.  And I try to delete every instance of “he said” or “she said” in dialogue.  “He said” / “she said” is a space-filler that adds no information.  The quotes already tell us that someone is speaking.  If you want to tell us more, then tell us more: “he groaned”; “she spat”; “he roared”; etc.  There is no sense doing all of this in the early drafts, because I know I will end up cutting a lot of what I write.  So I save the polishing for when I am completely satisfied with my plot and characters.

After draft 4 is done (next week!), I send the manuscript to my editor.  And then, someone else gets to tell me what parts of the book I need to fix!

Next time: Ye Olde Book Faire (in honor of the impending London Book fair, I will discuss what it’s like to attend a book fair, and whether or not young writers should)



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