Monday, October 07, 2013

If You Are An Expert In Your Field

You won't often find a writer of historical fiction who is also an historian. As in doctorate in history historian.

To write believable fiction, you can research the era in which you've set your novel and use that information sparingly. Nothing is gained by inserting all you've discovered in a work of fiction because readers don't need too much information. They need room to imagine things for themselves, and the fact is, a lot of hard data drags down the narrative.

But you need a platform if you're going to get noticed in an overcrowded publishing industry.

Why not go to school and get that Ph.D. in history, and then tack on a Master's degree in Fine Arts to show you've been taught how to write creatively. With planks like that in your platform, you'll get William Clegg's attention.

Mr. Clegg represented Ashley Prentice Norton when she was after publishing a thinly veiled roman a clef. Her platform, like her novel, was based largely on her social position and attendant experiences as an heiress of the Standard Oil fortune. Marketing the book swirled around the platform, which isn't something you yourself are likely to have. There are not all that many heiresses out there in the world as a percentage of the population. It's something you're born into, not educated into.

So you won't have the likes of William Clegg calling on you unless you can come up with a better platform. Like the one Katy Simpson Smith built from university degrees.

The multi-degreed writer is represented by the WME agent, although her upcoming novel is not her first go at publication. She had her dissertation published through Louisiana State University Press. But perhaps her first love was fiction, because she also earned a Master's in Fine Arts. Can you picture her parents, wringing their hands and wondering if their daughter was becoming a professional student, staying in school forever instead of getting a job? Then when she earned a fellowship at Chicago's acclaimed Newberry Library, did they sit at home and fret over where she was headed, and if she was heading in the right direction?

At any rate, all that education paid off because Ms. Smith attracted the attention of a powerhouse literary agent who has sold her novel to Harper, at auction. There's some buzz generation for you, to get a bidding frenzy churning.

Ms. Smith's novel is set in North Carolina, which is oddly enough the very place where she earned her doctorate. The action takes place in the Revolutionary War era, an historical period that she studied in the course of preparing her dissertation on motherhood in the American south. There will be tension and adventure in the novel, which isn't likely the sort of thing you'd find in a dissertation, but novels need something to keep the reader turning pages. THE STORY OF LAND AND SEA is described as a story of a young girl hidden away by her father on a sailing ship, to protect her life.

You could have written something equivalent, but if you don't have the platform in the form of advanced education and pieces of paper to prove you're educated, Mr. Clegg is not open to new queries.

Can Ms. Smith write entertaining fiction? Readers will judge for themselves when the novel is published. What Ms. Smith has gained with her credentials is a chance to prove what she believes she can do. If she fails, Harper isn't likely to take another chance on her second novel. But at least she had an opportunity.

And she can always fall back on her degrees. Someone has to teach history, after all.

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