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Writing Can Be Hard…

July 18, 2009

Writing can be hard. But not so hard as figuring out what to write.

It’s now been, what, two years and change since I finished the first draft of The Scourge of Rome? Since then, I’ve been beating my head against a wall trying to figure out what to write next. Alaric? The Cannae legions? Alaric again? The Scourge of Rome’s sequel?

Somehow, for some reason, nothing seemed to stick.

And now I’m running up against the same wall with regard to the latest plan – a novel about the Byzantine general Belisarius. His is a fantastic story, full of ridiculous amounts of intrique and heroic deeds, victories against insurmountable odds. But it’s just too big for one book. Or, one book from an unpublished would-be novelist. Just consider the campaigns the man waged. He fought against the Persians, the Vandals in Africa, the Goths in Italy, the Persians again, the Goths again, and finally repelled a Hunnic invasion of Thrace. That’s SIX campaigns, not counting battles, or the Nika Riots, or the intriques with Justinian and Theodora, or the plague.

There’s literally TOO MUCH story.

I’ve thought about cutting it down, focusing on just one episode or another, but my heart’s not in it. The really great conflicts weave throughout his entire career. Parcelling it out would diminish the payoff. Not to mention that I already have alarm bells going off in the back of my head, telling me that Belisarius would be a tough enough sell as is. An established author – a Colleen McCullough or Steven Pressfield or somesuch – could probably make a go of it, but a first time author? I could almost imagine an agent seeing “Byzantine” in the query letter and rejecting it outright. Knowing the chances it would have, it’s just hard to work up much enthusiasm for such a project.

So, what now? Where do I go from here?

A part of me is tempted to revisit The Scourge of Rome. Tear it apart with fresh eyes. Maybe I will. Or maybe I’ll indulge my inner cynic – the one that almost believes any historical fiction set in the ancient world is doomed unless it includes a) Spartans, b) Alexander the Great, c) Julius Caesar, or d) Attila the Hun – and turn my sights to one of those “sweet spots”. Or maybe I’ll write something else altogether.

Something to think about while the wife and kiddo are out of town this coming week…

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. Bonnie MacDougall permalink
    July 19, 2009 6:45 am

    Don, my husband, who reads historical novels, says he’d go out of his way to read about Belisarius, and that Colleen McCullough worked on several volumes at the same time for years. How good can it get? Years and years immersed in one fantastic story that takes years and years to tell. And one confirmed reader for all of it at that! Personally, I’d like to see you try your hand at Somerled and his Viking friends. Just don’t stop writing and is your first book an available e-text anywhere? Don would be interested.

  2. July 19, 2009 6:49 am

    I think “biographical” historical novels are especially hard because a life, however exciting and adventurous does not necessarily contain a cohesive narrative with a conflict and developing climax. There may be lots of events but no story. The challenge is to draw out that story.

  3. Matt permalink*
    July 19, 2009 9:01 pm

    Thanks for the comments you two!

    Bonnie…Belisarius isn’t dead quite yet…I’m still trying to figure out a way to tell his story. Amazing what a night’s sleep can do to clear the mind. I’ve actually toyed around with Somerled, but I have yet to find a solid historical narrative to build from.

    I can send The Scourge of Rome your way in PDF form…just need an e-mail address.

    Lucy…I agree about the biographical approach. Sadly it’s the flesh-and-blood characters that really pique my interest. The really frustrating thing with Belisarius is that there IS a story there, with one of the best climaxes I can imagine…it’s just SO BIG!

  4. Bonnie MacDougall permalink
    July 20, 2009 6:34 pm

    That’s great; the best address is bonnie.macdougall@gmail.com
    Don will relish this read.

    I write some myself so I can kind of feel your burden while looking for a fit. Too much story drags the head down, but not enough story puts knots in the stomach. Don’t know which would be worse, but what a fine day it will be when the fit comes. It always does.

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