“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” – Neil Gaiman
Until recent months I’ve resisted the idea of a structured critique group. Maybe resistance occurs when I confuse taking criticism with doing whatever the critic suggests. Maybe it occurs when my defenses go up. Participation in a couple of critique groups lately is improving my writing and changing my attitude.
In my current exploration of platitudes (stay present, never give up, write what you know), the one that jumps out for me today is, “Believe in yourself.” Does this mean to ignore the critics, confident that your work is already the best you can make it? Or does it mean to stay open to critique, confident that you can always make your work better? With a reasonable degree of self-belief, you can stay vulnerable without being damaged. You can hear feedback while continuing to own your life and work.
Writing is communication. Between the extremes of keeping a personal journal (with no readers) and writing to formula (revealing nothing of the writer), writing requires that both writer and reader be present. As Neil Gaiman suggests, writers need both to hear what isn’t working for a reader and to retain personal responsibility for deciding what to do about it.
Writing About Polio
Today is World Polio Day. In my lifetime, the number of children paralyzed annually by wild poliovirus has dropped from half a million to fewer than thirty so far this year. Polio has been stopped in every country except Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria. Final eradication will mean that polio vaccination can cease, post-polio syndrome will disappear, and polio outbreaks will no longer threaten children in conflict zones where health services fail to function.
It has been my privilege to write the ongoing history of polio eradication on behalf of Rotary International, a spearheading partner of this initiative. Unlike the historical fiction that absorbs most of my other writing hours, this project calls me to find and organize the narrative rather than invent it. For better and worse, this true story involves as much drama, suspense, and heroism as any I can invent.
Decades of detective work untangled the mystery of why some children suddenly lost the use of an arm or leg. Bold adventurers traveled by bicycle, boat, or camel to carry polio vaccine into remote areas. Secret agents slipped between opposing lines in civil wars to negotiate “days of tranquility,” temporary truces for immunization.
You’re invited to read the opening pages of Rotary and the Gift of a Polio-Free World on the writing page of my website. Volume I (Making the Promise) and Volume II (Almost Every Child) are available in paperback at the Rotary Shop. The final volume of the trilogy, Fulfilling the Promise, will come out after the entire world is polio-free.
Write Your Novel in a Month
Is there a novel inside you just waiting to get out, as soon as you find the time . . . or get started . . . or create some accountability? NaNoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month—may be just what you’ve been waiting for. Hundreds of thousands of participants worldwide will put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) the first day of November. Their challenge: to complete a 50,000-word novel before midnight Nov. 30.
It’s a tall order but not impossible. Bestseller Water for Elephants was a NaNoWriMo novel. You may surprise yourself by what you can accomplish with determination and a deadline. Even if you don’t reach the target word count, the effort can stretch your limits. You may sharpen your focus. You may subdue the perfectionist sitting on your shoulder, the one that always wants you to go back and start over. You may experience the joy of flow.
At first I planned to post this on Halloween, just in time for the writing to begin. But if you decide to do it, mid-October is not too soon to start planning. Muse, plot, get to know your characters. Sign up to connect with fellow writers, resources, and tools. NaNoWriMo can help you through three of the biggest novel-writing barriers: to get started, to keep going, and to finish.
Readers bring expectations to historical fiction and resist when the expectations aren’t met. What’s a writer to do when popular preconceptions don’t match the facts?
Misconceptions about medieval culture abound. The earth was flat, science was stalled, all medicine was superstition, witch burnings were common, sex wasn’t mentioned, orgasms were only for men, and peasants routinely starved. Here are a few I’ve met as a writer:
Age. Readers question the plausibility of characters older than thirty-five or forty, or unmarried women over twenty (other than nuns). Averages are not limits. Life expectancy was low for newborns, but if you survived childhood and childbirth, you were likely to live into your sixties or seventies. One scholar puts medieval average age of first marriage at 17 in Italy, 16 in France, and 18 in England and Germany. Some wed much younger and others waited until their twenties.
Filth. Everyone knows that people bathed once a year and everyone stank. Wrong. Most medieval towns had communal bathhouses, diners washed hands in a basin before and after eating (important if you eat with your fingers!), and soap-making was a major industry.
Vocabulary. This one’s complicated because we don’t write in Middle English. But some readers insist that medieval folk spoke stiffly and formally, never used contractions, and never addressed friends or lovers by given name. Everyday life wasn’t like that. The seemingly modern words puke and booze go back at least to Shakespeare. Contractions were plentiful. Given names existed before surnames and stayed in common use. Ordinary speech was often playful, humorous, and cheeky.
Is History Written by the Winners?
The American Revolution, as I learned it in high school, was all about the rebellious colonists and the redcoats they fought against. We studied next to nothing about the many colonists who stayed loyal to Britain. I read a Soviet-era history of Hungary that didn’t even mention the failed Hungarian revolt of 1956. Although academic history today takes a wider perspective and popular history reflects more sympathy for the underdog, it’s still common that history is written by the winners.
But history is also written by the losers—the Jews after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, the Jacobites upon failure to restore the Stuart dynasty, the Confederates in the American Civil War. And think of all the winners whose history we read only as it impacted others: the Germanic conquerors of Rome, the Vikings, and a whole succession of peoples from Central Asia. My high school classes didn’t discuss the largest land empire in history, established by Mongol leader Genghis Khan.
I’d like to propose a different generalization: History is written by the literate. Of course the literate often won, but not always. High historical levels of literacy among Jews, Scots, and Southern whites did much to ensure that their stories would be told and retold. The lack of literacy among Goths, Vandals, Huns, Vikings, Mongols, and Tartars reduced those peoples to stereotypes shaped by the bias of their enemies.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.