Gwen wrote to ask, "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." It's a novel, for crying out loud. 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 -- which, of course, many movie viewers swallowed as gospel), 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.
An author I represent, Ginger Garrett, took a fresh look at Thomas More in her fabulous novel In the Shadow of Lions. A few people (including one editor) argued that she shouldn't take a well-beloved historical figure like More and paint him in a negative light. I found that notion daft. Isn't that one of the PURPOSES of fiction -- to get us to see things in a new way? There are some creepy things about More if you want to take an honest look at the historical record, regardless of his sainthood. And that's not at all on a par with a doofus like Oliver Stone just trying to do another hatchet job on someone he doesn't like.
2. Mary wrote to ask, "As an agent, 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.)
I always tell people I'm looking to be changed by a book. Nonfiction is basically written to solve a problem or answer a question, so it should share information that will change us -- help us to live more effectively. And novels are written to entertain and enlighten us, so the best novels change us by helping us see the world in a new way. All great books change us -- and that's what I'm looking for. Books that will CHANGE me.
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."
Of course, bad writing often wins the day. I once received a novel proposal that began with these words: "Ring, ring!" said the telephone. Barf, barf, said the agent.
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 friend and fellow agent Steve Laube.
4. Andy wrote to say, "I thought you weren't doing many conferences this year."
I'm not. I'm team-teaching a "How to Write Bestselling Fiction" seminar with Susan May Warren for a handful of people in Portland later this month, and repeating that in Denver in late June, but those are small groups. (If you'd like to know more, check out www.themasterseminars.com ). And I'll put in an appearance for a couple events at the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing next week, but the ACFW conference is really the only big writing conference I'll be doing this year.
However, if you'd like to interact with me, check out the marketing webinar I'm doing for Writers Digest this Thursday. We're going to be exploring marketing your books in the new economy, branding, writing good ad copy, and how to take charge of your own marketing plan. I think the cost is just $79, and you can find out all about it here: http://www.writersdigestshop.com/product/self-marketing-for-authors-webinar/?r=chipblog033010
Would love to see you at the webinar. Enjoy your Easter Monday!