My first novel was Vipsania: A Roman Odyssey (2006). I had dabbled in fiction before that, but always in short formats and with the support of illustrations. Vipsania was my first attempt at a full length story – and what a story it was – a fact-based “alternative history” of the Roman emperor Tiberius and his first wife Vipsania. At its heart was a theory I had developed based on research for my non-fiction book about the Roman Empresses (Great Women of Imperial Rome, Routledge 2006). As such, it was a story that only I could tell.
But could I write a novel? I certainly didn’t read novels – partly a consequence of traumatic school experiences and partly because I preferred less time-consuming art forms. However, to my surprise, I really enjoyed writing Vipsania, it sold fairly well, and those readers who bothered to write reviews rated it good to excellent! I felt like I had found my niche.
A few years later, I wrote another historical novel set in Roman times. This is the story of a 3rd Century Roman outlaw: Bulla Felix: The Roman Robin Hood. Once again, I was pleased with the product, and very encouraged when a prominent literary agent took an interest. However, I wasn’t prepared for his verdict:
The story is solid, good, nice plot. The characterization and involvement of the reader is insufficient to warrant interest from the publishers with whom we transact. I wish I could be hopeful here, but whilst you have a very interesting story to tell, it is not told in such a way as to enthrall the reader, involve the reader, win over the reader. You tell me what happens, you do not share what happens, you do not fully describe/impart what happens.
Well now! I realized that I didn’t really know what he was talking about, or how I might rectify things if I wanted to. So I did some dipping into well-reviewed, best-selling historical novels on Amazon (using the “Look Inside” feature) to see what I was missing. To my surprise, I found the highly regarded books almost unreadable. They made me feel claustrophobic and thoroughly manipulated. Every detail of action, emotion, and physical surroundings was described using literary devices that, though often clever and sometimes beautiful, often seemed forced, pretentious; even oppressive.
I had always preferred movies to novels because watching something on a screen allowed a sense of separation and independence, while a novel – especially of this sort – got into my head in a way that manipulated my emotions and my imagination. It was just too close for comfort. When I read nonfiction, I was still able to maintain some distance and perspective, but this kind of fiction was just too overbearing for me.
So I decided I didn’t want to rewrite Bulla Felix: The Roman Robin Hood in an effort to make it “warrant interest from the publishers with whom we transact”. I would trust my own taste and publish it as it was.
I immediately received some good reviews, but when I gave copies to a couple of literary-minded friends, they echoed the agent’s opinion. One of them even said “this is terrible writing!” And then, though the reviews for my works of fiction were mostly positive, averaging 3.5 to 4 stars out of 5, I received a couple of very negative reviews for Vipsania in the same vein: “terrible writing!”
This was disheartening because I enjoyed writing historical fiction, I had some interesting stories to tell, and the majority of readers really liked my books. So I did some more “dipping” into novels in Amazon. Whenever I got a negative review, I would read portions of the novels that had received positive reviews from those readers. It was the same story – I rebelled utterly. I realized that I didn’t want to write like that – even if I could!
Now this isn’t to say that I don’t respect these writers – I do. I admire their craftsmanship and ability to use language – I just don’t want to subject myself (or my readers) to such a controlling style. I would rather tell (or read) a straightforward story and leave the peripheral details to the imagination.
An analogy comes to mind. I greatly respect Classical music and enjoy many bits and pieces of it. However, there are few complete symphonies or operas that I would want to hear in their entirety – and I wouldn’t want to write music under the constraints of sonata form or what have you, either. I do write songs, but they are short, sweet, and rarely feature more than six guitar chords. When it comes to writing fiction, I am a rock and roller.
Of course, I know there are readers who insist on a more sophisticated, more literary approach than I can offer. They are free to avoid my writing – and to return it for a refund if they buy it unwittingly. However, I know that there are many others with tastes like my own because my books sell and my reviews to date (over 150) are overwhelmingly positive.
In view of all this, I have just polished up good old Bulla Felix and given him a new cover. Enjoy! (or not). As rock and roller Ricky Nelson said “You can’t please everyone so you got to please yourself.”