Friday, April 22, 2011
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. Coincidentally, it is also the 75th anniversary of the publication of Gone with the Wind. 75 years after the War Between the States ended, Margaret Mitchell published her only novel; a novel which has become an icon of American literature. It has been called, variously, “one of the most extraordinary phenomena of bestseller history” and “one of the most popular books of all time”, as well as “the most romantic novel in history”. It garnered a Pulitzer Prize for Mitchell, and the subsequent film earned a record 10 nominations and won the Best Picture award of 1939. The book became an instant bestseller, despite an unprecedented price of $3.00.
Gone with the Wind has stood the test of time in the US, but also has remained a bestseller throughout the world. It has been surmised that, perhaps, the themes of the novel are so familiar to anyone, anywhere, because, sadly, war is universal. It has been translated into 40 languages and published in over 50 countries. In Japan, it has been translated and is frequently presented as a stage production. Mitchell herself said that the theme of the novel was “survival”: certainly a timeless and universal one.
The Margaret Mitchell Museum in Atlanta sees visitors from all over the world, who come with stories of their own experiences with war. “Windies” – die-hard fans of the novel and its author – celebrate the book with pomp and relish. This year they are planning a champagne toast at the author’s gravesite to commemorate the anniversary. There have been several sequels, Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley and Rhett Butler’s People by Donald McCaig, as well as the disputed parody novel, And The Wind Done Gone by Alice Randall. Negotiations are also underway for another sequel to be penned. In addition to the frequent Japanese theatrical productions, the musicals “Scarlett” and “Gone with the Wind” have been produced in England.
As with other novels of troubled times, GWTW has earned harsh criticism for its negative presentation of the slave characters and its benign view of the institution of slavery. It seems important to keep in mind, however, that Margaret Mitchell was writing from a single generation’s distance from the cataclysm, and from a locale at the heart of it. Much of her research was based on conversations she heard throughout her life from survivors and participants of the “war of Northern aggression”. The book’s sympathetic tone might rankle now as we view it from nearly a century later. Today’s novels of romance fiction also often deal with sensitive and sometimes controversial topics too, however and come in for their own share of criticism. The books that started it all, the “bodice rippers”, in fact quickly evolved beyond the “forced seduction” scenario in great part because of the outcry over the tacit presentation of rape as something that could be romantic.
Too, the protagonist of GWTW is not a typical romance heroine by any stretch. Scarlett O’Hara will, by her own admission, lie, cheat, steal or kill before she or any of her family go hungry. She is also immature, manipulative, selfish, and covets another woman’s husband until, well, until she doesn’t anymore. Because she has then set her sights on the incomparable Rhett Butler. However, she also embodies many of the de rigueur qualities in today’s heroines: fortitude, bravery, determination, pluckiness (gumption as Ms. Mitchell said), loyalty to home and family, and a zest for life and love.
As for the towering person of Rhett Butler, I find him the consummate romance hero. Despite his shortcomings, he fulfills the number one requirement of a romance hero: He comes through when the need is most dire. Of course, I like my romance heroes mad, bad and dangerous to know and flawed. The better to be saved and converted by a romance heroine!
The tempestuous character of Scarlett, and the novel overall, despite these issues, is unforgettable. Mitchell created a panoramic tale of love, loyalty, heartbreak and lust for life, set against a backdrop of the most devastating events the country has ever faced. The primary characters barely survive – and in fact, a number of them don’t. Characters go from the highest of heights to the most abysmal of lows. Talk about your black moments!
Gone with the Wind is a categorized as a “popular novel”. Certainly I would consider it “women’s fiction”. Today’s romance fiction also falls into those categories yet, in the end, while GWTW is certainly not a romance, by today’s standards (a happy ever after being notably absent for everyone involved) it is one of the most romantic novels of all time. A larger than life hero and heroine, trials and tribulations, historical sweep, passion and as with every romance – painful lessons learned.
Margaret Mitchell’s own words about her book might also sum up a basic romance novel tenet: “I wrote about the people who had gumption and the people who didn’t.”
Despite the differences in length, complexity of narrative, and the most assuredly un-happy ever after outcome, Gone with the Wind might well be considered a progenitor of contemporary romance novels: stories where a hero and heroine meet and fall in love (albeit at different times), face impossible odds on the path to happiness, but who, in the end, are able to overcome the odds and find joy together.
Margaret Mitchell’s novel mirrored her own life in many ways. Her mother died during the 1918 influenza pandemic and she was left to care for her family, Irish Catholic just like the O’Haras. She was an independent woman, choosing to pursue a career in journalism when women were certainly not regulars on the newspaper beat. She suffered through an unhappy first marriage, only to marry the 2nd suitor who had been simultaneously vying for her attention when she accepted the proposal of the first.
Her novel almost never saw the light of day and the tale is legendary in the annals of publishing. While the specifics of the story vary, it is said that after seven years of work she had secreted the manuscript away in a pile of envelopes, in her closet, having no intention of pursuing publication. But when Macmillan editor Harold Latham visited Atlanta in the hope of discovering a new Southern writer (would that this practice was still in place – we could avoid all those rejections and just wait for the editors to come calling!), a mutual acquaintance mentioned Mitchell’s book. Apparently a friend found it humorous to think that Mitchell had written a book and Mitchell, her back up over what she perceived as a slight, marched to Latham’s hotel and handed over her tome. When she later tried to get Latham to give it back, he refused. He’d already begun to read, and had been swept away (couldn’t resist!). The rest, as they say, is history.
Sadly, Margaret Mitchell’s own HEA was not to be. Her life was cut short by tragedy when she was hit by a car and killed at the age of 49.
Gone with the Wind has sold more copies than any other book in history (with the exception of the Bible). It has fired the imagination of other writers who have sought to capture the time, the characters, and the questions of the time. It lives because it speaks to the human spirit of those who struggle against the tides of war. It gives us a heroine who remains unbowed despite all travails. Who never gives up and even as the novel closes, prepares to do battle again for the man she loves. Because, after all, tomorrow is another day!
Monday, April 4, 2011
Congratulations! You have finished your manuscript. You have reviewed, revised, re-drafted, edited and polished like mad. And you have begun the query process, or actually sent off your baby to the agent or editor of your dreams: The vital step on the road to publication. So now you are a contestant in The Waiting Game. Be it for six weeks for a response to a query or six months – or more – for a response to a partial or full submission, you’ve got some time on your hands. Nothing to do but take up a hobby, watch some reality TV, wait and pray to St. Frances de Sales (patron saint of writers). Right?
Now is the most important time of all to be proactive. The time between now and an offer on your book is no time to relax. This is a crucial time, during which you can either learn to bake artisanal bread, finish that sweater you started in 1991, or prepare for the road to publication.
Okay. You know everyone says that once you submit you have to keep writing. And that is essential (no publisher wants a one-hit writing wonder, right?). But what else can you do?
Research: Rejection will be inevitable. (Unless you’re the lucky one in a million who hits it big with the first submission of your first novel – in which case, play the lottery, too.) So who will you submit to next? You want to be ready to go – no wallowing in self-pity. Research publishers, editors and agents. The titles and authors they produce. Study your query letters and hone them for new prey. Ditto your synopses.
Investigate: What’s the state of the industry you are in? What’s happening with technology? Business and trends? Legal and contract issues? Sales? Time to become well versed in the business of which you hope to be a successful part.
Discover: Opportunities to promote yourself in the writing and publishing community via contests, workshops, conferences, conventions and other networking venues.
Fine Tune: Your brand, platform and your presence – by working on your website, social networking, newsletter, and your marketing plan for the momentous day when you are a published author.
Read: Your genre to keep abreast of what’s being published; other genres; fiction – everything! Trends in publishing and reading are key to understanding how to position yourself amid the pack. Your competition is not just other romance authors. It is any writer, any book on which a reader will spend her money.
(And an aside here - be aware not just of trends in publishing, but of trends in entertainment. Someone once said of the railroad magnates that the reason they lost supremacy was because they thought they were in the "railroad business", when, in fact, they were in the "transportation business". As a writer, you aren't in the publishing business: You're in the ENTERTAINMENT business! You're competing for the time and money people are spending on entertainment, be it books, TV, film, sports or theme parks. What else is going on out there?)
Hone Your Craft: Get your do-it-yourself MFA in creative writing. Become a consummate storyteller – work on aspects of craft and technique, do exercises, read critically and take classes, workshops and panels. You can always ALWAYS improve your skills – which improves your chance at success.
Write: Duh, right? But it REALLY IS the best way to keep honing your writing ability, keep your momentum going, to evolve your skills and your voice and become the best author you can be – and have more material under construction so when asked, the publishers know they’re looking at the real deal: a writer looking for a career.
Embrace Your Bliss: Use the waiting opportunity to keep your life sane, organized, productive and joyful. Plant your garden. Reconnect with friends and family who’ve patiently waited for some quality time while you toiled over a hot keyboard. Remind your significant other that romance writers do it with creativity. Do whatever makes you happy to recharge your human batteries.
Explore: Everyone, everything, the world around you. Experience and stimulation are the sustenance of a writer. Use some time to refill your creative well and use everything as fuel for stories. Walk, watch, listen, taste, smell – FEEL.
This time of suspended animation offers precious opportunities to create a solid foundation for yourself, to be ready when you must move on to your next submission or – fingers crossed – publication. Think of yourself as a Writing Olympian. Only the writer who has trained to tip-top shape will be able to compete.
* No matter what stage of the business you are at, these hints can keep you sharp, productive and looking forward to your next achievement as a writer.