I happen to agree with Esther when it comes to writing prompts. I’m not a great devotee of prompts.
We’ve all heard those success stories of debut authors. (I hesitate to use the qualifier “overnight’, as it tends to negate the work that went into the writing.) J.K. Rowling. Veronica Roth. S.E. Hinton. Christopher Paolini self-published his first book, Eragon. He sold thousands of copies, when Random House took notice and bought the rights, and the rest is dragon history. Emma Cline, who wrote The Girls, was offered a three-book contract with a reported $2 million deal.
The real success stories – and the real champions -- are not the lucky debuts but we the sloggers, the majority of us who get up every morning and do what we do. We don’t define ourselves by rejections, nor by successes. We write. And if we’re lucky, we have a friend or two who send reminders, wrapped in chocolate, with a note: Yes, rejection sucks. Eat chocolate. Now get back to work.
But getting back to work is not always as easy as it sounds. I’ve written about my own trials in finding an agent many times, including here. This week, news broke out about events surrounding New Leaf Agency (See Publisher’s Weekly article here), bringing into stark relief how excruciating the business of writing can be. Despite having seven books, a few award-winners and several short stories published in major venues, I've faced my own challenges to find an agent. And this in stressor certainly impacted my writing process. I mean, what’s the point?
After parting ways with my third agent, I stopped submitting to focus more on the story engineering process, taking classes from some of the best people in the business. (I highly recommend classes from the indomitable Emma D. Dryden, from the master editors of Eileen Robinson and Harold Underdown at Kid's Book Revisions, from Lorin Oberweger's Free Expressions.) Taking classes from such great teachers kept me in the flow.
In 2023, one editor finally made an offer (shhhh, it’s not official yet. But watch this space! Unless, of course, change happens.). Another editor invited me to create a proposal for a multi-book project. Who-op! The proposal was accepted and made its way up the chain. With these several manuscripts in hand, I was able to connect with my current agent.
Still, we remember that things can change on a dime. That’s what it means to have a career in writing: the business of publishing is always in a state of flux. And so it happened again, the proposed series was rejected. Historical fiction is a hard sell. What's next? Well, my agent and I are working on it.
If there’s a prompt to be had, perhaps the only one that matters is:
Write what you love. Write your passion.
I write historical fiction. As Liz Trenow states (Writer’s Digest, April 2023): “When I discovered historical fiction, I loved the way it opened up worlds I knew little about, led me into researching eras of history, even took me traveling to find out more.”
For me, history is my inspiration. I grew up reading historical adventures and watching Doctor Who (a show that bent history into a wibbly wobbly adventure, to be sure!) Of course, it was the boys who were having all the fun. I wanted to know about those other stories, plain and ordinary girls like me.
I also love to research. I enjoy reading diaries of those who experienced the events. When writing Girls of Gettysburg (2014), I walked the battlefield four times, watching re-enactors create this moment in history taht took place one hundred fifty-one years ago. I stood in the very place where twelve thousand Confederate forces gathered along Seminary Ridge. Almost a mile away, at the end of an open field, a copse of trees marked the Union line standing firm on Cemetery Ridge. When the signal was given, the men marched across the field. The line had advanced less than two hundred yards when the federals sent shell after shell howling into their midst. Boom! Men fell legless, headless, armless, black with burns and red with blood. Still they marched on across that field. And in the middle of this gruesome battle, the bloodiest of the Civil War, were my girls of Gettysburg.
My characters also broke the rules and norms of their period as they struggled to take control of their destiny, although I was careful to provide context. This focus reaffirmed the theme that underscores all my writing: Doing right wasn’t always easy, and sometimes it could be dangerous, but it could also change the world. And, in reading my stories, young readers are empowered (hopefully) to do the same.For me, historical fiction tells the story of a living past, illustrating the continuity of life. Humans by their very nature are difficult, complicated, short-sighted, and at times, tragic. And yet, there is hope, grounded in human experience and perspective, all of which has been the driving force of my storytelling.
As my protagonist in Big River’s Daughter (2013) said, “This here story is all true, as near as I can recollect. It ain’t a prettified story. Life as a river rat is stomping hard, and don’t I know it. It’s life wild and woolly, a real rough and tumble. But like Da said, life on the river is full of possible imaginations. And we river rats, we aim to see it through in our own way. That’s the honest truth of it.” And therein is the hope of River’s journey: if one perseveres, life can be full of possible imaginations.
So, the question -- or the prompt -- becomes: Why do you like to write, and what do you love about your writing?
-- Bobbi Miller