Fear in Writing: March 2011

Today in Literary History

Today in Literary History...December 14, 1907: Rudyard Kipling receives the Nobel prize for literature, the first English-language writer to do so.ud

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Ending

Are you a writer who sees the ending before it's written?  Perhaps I should ask this a different way...

Are you a person who plans long-term?  Or do you see what is right in front of you, the here and now?

On page 228 of The Sherlockian, Graham Moore writes, "The thing [Harold] most remembered about her...was her ability to live entirely in the present.  She was able to accept the joys and misfortunes in front of her as they came, without wondering endlessly when the joys would end or the misfortunes would lift.  Harold was paralyzed by endings."
There are, of course, benefits to both.  Those of us who think of the right now (like me), tend to be optimistic people who worry less and do a lot of spontaneous things.  Those who view the far future save for retirement, retire earlier, and solve problems before they arise.

And, there are negatives.  I, for one, am not a planner.  I don't save and I don't clip coupons and I don't think about the trips we'll take when our children are out of the house.  I want the trips now and I want to have fun now.  Long-termers seem to have a little trouble letting go of worries in order to enjoy what's right in front of them.

But in book writing, it has to be better to be a long-term thinker, right?  Take it from one who is not: this is the case.  I don't see an ending, I see chapter by chapter.  I might see parts of my characters' makeup, but not the whole of him/her until I write them.  I am a writer who writes when I feel like it, not at a set time every day.  I live my life the same way--and it's been known to cause a problem or two in my house.

So, are you a 'Harold' writer or a 'Michele' writer?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Hello, blog.

Ever feel like life interferes with your blogging?  Ha!  What a ridiculous statement!  Life--here defined as anything that happens in the physical world, not pertaining to the Internet or the computer--should interfere with blogging!

But what about when your own blog starts to look like a foreign space?  When you can't remember where you placed that Shelfari app or which links remain on your sidebar?  When you don't even check back on the day your post to see if anyone responds?

That's the way I feel.  I never realized how busy young kids could keep a person.  By the time I have a brief moment of solitude, putting my brain to use on this thing is the last thing I want to do.  A good book to take me away,  a TV show to relax me, or just sleep...aaahh, sleep.

I must also admit to you that I am a person of immediacy.  I like to do whatever I feel at the moment.  I hate schedules and commitments.  I like spur-of-the-moment decisions and spontaneity.  I will buck appointments till the last minute.

How does one reconcile this personality with the need to get things done?  Even the want to be better about blogging every day?  Impossible?  Maybe.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Minor Characters

Don't ignore them.  They can make or break a movie, a tv show, and definitely your book.  Take this episode of Castle.  "One Life to Lose" aired Monday, March 21st, with Jodi Taffel playing a soap opera fanatic.  Costuming certainly helped--jingly bracelet over cuff, curly hair wild like her eyes, long nails weilded like daggers.  But it is Taffel's timing and expression that steal the scene.  Check her out below at 10:24.

If a minor character has character, your scene can come alive.  A reader will laugh or cry with that character and exclaim, "Perfect!" if you pay attention to the little things and the little characters.  Just like the setting and the costumes and the framing can play essential background to the main characters, they can also play starring roles.

Let your minor characters shine through!  Do any favorite supporting roles come to your mind?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Edgar Allan Poe, the Opera

Album cover for opera
That's right, folks.  Poe is hitting the stage in a new way--set to music.  According to BBC Radio, the drummer for The Police has written an opera based on Poe's famous story, The Tell-Tale Heart.

In order to understand the short story as an opera, one must first know the definition of "opera"--an "art form in which singers and musicians perform a dramatic work combining text (called a libretto) and musical score" (wiki).  Opera came about in the late 16th century, in Florence, Italy--home of so many artistic triumphs.  In the early 20th century, the musical art underwent a transformation by modernists such as Stravinsky and Puccini.  Now, "modern" opera goes back a century and takes on a tale of guilt and madness.

Watch part of it here, if you like:

clever merchandise
Does the story lend itself to opera?  Tragic lead character, dramatic turning point, life-changing event...all there.  But it seems to me the story is meant to be read.  It's meant to be seen in black and white in contrast with the color of Poe's words.  Each sentence is meant to be thought as the narrator thought them, in the growing, swirling madness that slowly overtook his mind.  An opera is too bold for this bold work.  Does that make sense?  Throwing such a story in your face does not make it stronger, but instead weakens the very strengths of Poe's brilliance.

What do you think?

Oh!  And Happy St. Patty's Day!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

What's in a name?*

Warwickshire.  Kirkby-in-Ashfield.  Maryport.  Much Wenlock.  Gloucestershire.  Needham Market.  Newbiggin-by-the-Sea.  Ottery St. Mary.  Saffron Walden.  Shepton Mallet.  Thornbury.  Wells-next-the-Sea.  Nottinghamshire.

As you may have guessed, these are towns and counties in England.  They are simple names, but they are very specific to the location in which they exist.  With the exception of those former colonies of HRH, only in GB could these very British names take hold.  This without even getting into the names of historic properties and estates!

Say some of these words aloud...Gloucestershire.  Thornbury.  Warwickshire.  Your mouth probably stretches a bit more than usual, your tongue getting more use and your mouth forced to really enunciate.

But, aside from the difference in speech, you probably feel something when saying these words.  Does Wells-next-the-Sea make you think of a matter-of-fact group of people in a beautiful ocean setting?  Honest fishermen, perhaps, in straight-up cottages the wind whips through morning, noon, and night.  How about Shepton Mallet?  Must be a country village with a busy former trade life and hardworking townfolk.  Warwickshire?  I see landed gentry and acres upon acres of working lower classes, beautiful pastures divided only by estate homes and historic buildings.

These assumptions are not correct.  Wells-next-the-Sea is a beautiful, oceanside town, but established as a port and famous for the nearby birthplace of Lord Nelson.  Warwickshire is a county--so not defined by just one description.  It, too, is famous for those it has born: Shakespeare, George Eliot, and poet Rupert Brooke.  Shepton Mallet?  I was right on!  See what a name can say!

The point is that words can make you feel.  They can make you imagine and therefore should be used wisely.  They are dangerous in the wrong hands and inspiring in the right ones.  Name your places well.  Call your people only words that invoke the right character.  Call out for geography with the titles of towns and houses.

How do you name your places and characters?  Do you try to invoke a feeling?  Do you search the history of a name or the meanings behind it in different cultures?  Do you say it out loud and feel it roll off your tongue?

* In the manner of my good blogging friend, Margot Kinberg, the title comes from another source.  This one is from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, (II, ii, 1-2).  The full line, spoken by Juliet, goes as such: 
What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet. So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd, Retain that dear perfection which he owes Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name; And for that name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself.
Romeo and Juliet, Annie Liebovitz, for Vogue 2008

Author Allan Leverone's Debut Thriller

Today we welcome author Allan Leverone to Southern City Mysteries.  His thriller, Final Vector, is now available.   Leverone is a three-time Derringer Award Finalist whose short fiction has been featured in Needle: A Magazine of Noir, Shroud Magazine, Twisted Dreams, Mysterical-E and many other venues, both print and online.  Now, I give you Allan Leverone...

Write a Good Book: How Hard Could it Be?
By Allan Leverone, author of FINAL VECTOR

I was pretty ignorant about the hard realities of publishing when I decided to try my hand at writing a novel. I figured, “How hard can it be? I’ll write a good book, submit it to a number of different big New York publishers, and then I’ll wait for the offers to come flooding in and I’ll pick from the best one.”


So was I, looking back on it. I had absolutely zero knowledge about the process of getting a novel published, beyond the “write a good book” part. But I was ignorant, not stupid. After finishing my first manuscript, I set about learning as much as I could about the publishing business in order to be able to sort through the many offers I would soon be receiving from Random House, Penguin, etc.

I suppose it goes without saying that the first thing I learned was there would be no offers from Random House, at least not until I had persuaded a literary agent that my work was worthy of his/her time, since the days of publishing’s Big Guys accepting “over the transom” manuscripts were long past. Oh yeah, and landing an agent would be no picnic, either. It would be at least as difficult as persuading that fictional Random House employee to buy my book, maybe more so.

I should probably note for you that all this was occurring in early 2007, before the current explosion in electronic reading devices had begun to turn the publishing world on its ear. Self-publishing back in the dark ages of 2007 was frowned upon to the point that it was considered career suicide for any writer—particularly an unknown writer trying to get his foot in the door—to place his own work into the marketplace.

It was all about distribution, you see. No distribution meant no sales to speak of, because, as everyone knew, the way to sell books was for your publisher’s sales force to fan out across the country and convince bookstore owners/buyers that the author of the book they were pushing would be the next J.K. Rowling or Dan Brown or Stephen King or Clive Cussler, depending of course on the genre of the book.

It seems almost quaint, doesn’t it? Like the idyllic picture of a much simpler world your parents or grandparents paint when they talk about how wonderful things were back in the good old days of 1990 or 1970 or 1950, depending upon how old you are and how old your parents or grandparents are.

That was less than four years ago. Now it seems many of those bookstores an author was so desperate to get shelf space in have either closed their doors for good or are in the midst of their agonizingly painful death throes. Shelf space in a real, brick-and-mortar bookstore? Sure, that would be great, who wouldn’t want that? But it represents the old model.

And I’m not here to tell you that’s a bad thing. If I could get my thriller, FINAL VECTOR, placed next to Barry Eisler’s latest or Lee Child’s latest, would I turn down the opportunity? Not on your life! I would probably camp out in front of the store’s entrance every night so that when they opened their doors for business in the morning I would be first in line to admire . . . I mean, examine, yeah, that’s it, examine . . . the display.

But let’s face it—Allan Leverone is an unknown quantity, unless you happen to be a fan of mystery short fiction or dark short fiction, in which case I am only a mostly unknown quantity. The odds of my thriller ending up in the same zip code as Lee Child’s at your local bookseller are roughly equivalent to the odds of me winning a “Best-looking Author” photo” contest—and there’s not enough air-brushing in the world for that to happen.

But the thing about being an author in 2011 is that there are now other legitimate ways to sell books and, for new authors, to begin building a fan base. I spent a lot—no, wait, a LOT—of time querying agents between the spring of 2007 and late 2009, doing things the established way, spending hundreds of hours contacting many dozens of agents, all in the hopes of making that elusive connection, all in vain.

Finally, in late 2009, while still trying to gain the attention of an agent, I decided to try another tactic—I would begin sending my manuscripts to smaller, independent publishers, many of whom differ from the Big Guys in that they do not require agented submissions. It was a world of difference from self-publishing, as most Indies have their own daunting submissions procedures and rigorous editing process.

Almost immediately Medallion Press, one of the biggest and, in my opinion, best, of the Indies showed an enthusiastic interest in my book about an air traffic controller who must stop an attempted assassination of the President of the United States while his dealing with his own wrenching personal loss.

You want to know the best part of this brave new publishing world? After some changes of proposed format over the past year, FINAL VECTOR is now available as an ebook, and thus is completely insulated from the make-or-break aspect of attempting to gaining admittance into the rarefied air of your local bookstore’s shelves. As I try to develop a fan base for my debut novel, all I need do is convince thriller readers that they will be getting a good story when they download my book onto their electronic device.

It’s still not easy, don’t get me wrong. I’m still an unknown, or mostly unknown, author, but this slight leveling of the playing field has resulted in folks like me having at least the chance to reach a potential audience, especially as the ereader explosion continues. And that’s all I can ask for. Because, ultimately, it’s all about the story.

“Write a good book.” How hard could it be?

Thank you, Mr. Leverone, for stopping by Southern City Mysteries!  Hope your book brings you much success and many more opportunities to publish.
For more on the author and his work, visit AllanLeverone.com or check out his blog.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Thank you for broadening my mind

Is it the lack of intellectual stimulation, the result of being a stay-at-home mom with two preschool-age children? Is it a maturity that comes with the 30s, otherwise known as "the fourth decade" to those who want to torture themselves?  Is it a change of interest as the world seems to set itself on fire?  A need to know as much as possible in the belief that other aspects of life will be explained?  Is it a way to enrich my writing, or perhaps escape from the burden of putting words on paper?

Whatever it is, turning 30 (and now 31) has produced in me a propensity for learning.  Let me preface this by pointing out that I didn't used to read nonfiction.  I had my fill in college and working in news every day.  My at-home reading was always mystery/thriller fiction--usually with an edge toward the airport novel.  You know the kind--you pick it up and it's a short, thrilling ride with questionable writing skill but full of action.

Now, nonfiction fills my shelves, with the classics keeping up in the race and both trailing just slightly behind literary fiction.

Sure, age has something to do with it.  But even more to blame is you.

That's right, my blogging friends, you have opened my eyes to the world.  Where I once read only male authors and only quick thrillers, I now read Tana French, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, and international fiction that blows my mind.  Where I once thrived on the unreal, I now thrill at the idea a story could actually be real.  (Often the real is more perverse than its counterpart.)
So, thank you.  I have read books set on every continent and by authors from nearly as many places.  I have learned so much from my nonfiction turn and it is all piling up in my head and my notes, hoping to spill into my own writing.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Eva Peron

Why is she so interesting?  Why does her name strike a fascination that defies her simple appearance and benevolent smile?

Perhaps it is because that smile wasn't what it seemed.  And the era in which she reigned--for reign she did--is one of fear and uncertainty, not just in Argentina, but around the world.  It is the time of Nazi Germany and Peronist Argentina.  It is a time of military rule and the height of dictator furor.

Patti LuPone as Evita, 1979
But why am I so interested?  I remember my first encounter with Evita.  It was through the words of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber.  "Don't cry for me, Argentina!"  Patti Lupone sang.  And my parents explained to me who this Evita was and why she asked a whole country not to cry, though she really meant the opposite.  At the age of 10 I knew words like "whore" and "bitch" and I knew that someone could be both but still magnetic and effervescent.

In the fifth grade, Evita became the topic of my first school paper.  I carefully read and wrote a biographical essay on the former First Lady of Argentina, replete with a profile-with-chignon rendering that my teacher remarked "wasn't called for in the instructions for this paper."  (Funny how we remember the slights in life, isn't it?  Perhaps this was how Evita survived--chewing on the slights until they nourished her.)

I am not Argentinean.  I have no ties with the Peronists or even with the Broadway musical.  But somehow this bottle-blonde Queen enticed me.  She still does.  Is it the mythical power that overwhelms the historical characters in Tomás Eloy Martínez's Santa Evita?  

No.  It's the mystery.  It is!  The mysteries of this life are more fascinating than the ones we make up.  Hence the success of the historical novel and the nonfiction writings of Capote and Martínez.  Mystery is why I write this blog.  Mystery is why I scour bookshelves and online libraries.  Mystery is why I watch Criminal Minds and CSI and even White Collar.  Mystery is why I read art books and play Legos with my children--yes, it's present even there.  Mystery is the not knowing, the wondering, the questions that fill our minds and pour out through our fingertips.

Do you have an Eva Peron?  Is there an historical figure who fascinates you?  Is there a mystery that enthralls?

Funnily, I hadn't thought about Evita in years.  I hadn't listened to

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Nonfiction post, again

Noticed a lot of nonfiction references here lately?  First of all, you've noticed more than my usual zero posts, so that's a change in itself.  Then there are the constant ramblings on history as literature and government docs as nonfiction...

The point is, I've been reading a lot of the genre lately.  I have a hunger for learning lately that came out of no where.  That's not true.  I turned 31 in February and I can only imagine that has something to do with it.  The vastness of the knowledge yet to learn is truly overwhelming, but it still appeals to me.  My sister's in law school and my son is getting read for kindergarten.  And I read.  That is my graduate school.

Last night I finished Santa Evita by Tomás Eloy Martínez.  In his 2010 obituary, The New York Times describes Mr. Martínez as "a distinguished Argentine writer whose fiction mingled journalistic and novelistic techniques to conjure an Argentina more authentically strange and elusive than either fact or fiction alone might allow."  (I highly recommend reading the article, which briefly documents the life of a heroic writer/journalist with such anecdotes as this: "In 1975, while eating lunch in a Buenos Aires restaurant, Mr. Martínez received word that when he stepped outside, he would be assassinated. There was no back exit. Reasoning that the least he could do was document his own murder, he phoned his newspaper and requested a photographer.  The receptionist said: 'Why so modest? I’ll send them all,' Mr. Martínez recalled in a 2007 interview with The Guardian of London. A swarm of photographers descended, and the assassins scattered.")

It is a book that mixes reality with legend--and not just one reality, but the reality as believed by multiple personalities.  It mixes myth with mysticism, life with death.  But most of all, it sends the reader straight to the confusing parallel universes that exist in Argentina--the dichotomy of great wealth and great poverty, great power and great weakness, great love and great hate, great fear and great bravery, great desire and great cowardice.  Passion.

I hungrily add several more of Martínez's works to my TBR list, including The Perón Novel and  The Tango Singer.  I hope a biography of the writer will appear--perhaps written in the style he so favored, a style very Argentinean, where "nothing is true; at the same time everything is true" (ny times).  One gets the feeling that is the kind of life Martínez led.  At one point, the Times journalist writes, "Mr. Martínez was married several times...Information on other survivors could not be confirmed."

It's the little mysteries, isn't it?

*My next nonfiction undertaking will be The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth by Frances Wilson.  Fictionally, I am reading The Canterbury Papers by Judith Koll Healey.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Local Laureate and Nonfiction

The 2011 Piedmont Laureate spoke yesterday on our NPR affiliate, WUNC.  Scott Huler said many interesting things, but one stood out to me.  He said during his reign as Piedmont Laureate the "worst piece of nonfction" will come to an end.  He's talking about the Homeland Security Color Coded Threat System.

That's right, folks, you can no longer ignore the Code Orange rating on your way to the airport, because it won't be there to ignore! (NY Daily News)  Who knew what Code Orange even meant?  Who paid attention to it anyway?  I know in the news business we reported code changes dutifully but without relish.

But I digress...What struck me most about Huler's comment wasn't the end of the Threat System, but him calling it nonfiction.  I never thought about it one way or the other, but do we include all records and government publications as literature?  Do they count enough to be called fiction or non?  (Not debating the fictional possibilities in government works here...)

This reminds me of the US governement's 2004 publication, The 9/11 Commission Report.  The result of months of investigation into the worst act of foreign terrorism on US soil became in instant bestseller, according to the NY Times.  And they're doing it again!  That's right, the government commission headed by Thomas H. Kean is releasing a new, fully-loaded report titled The 9/11 Report: The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.  It's due to be released August of this year.

All of this strikes a cord with me right now because I've been reading so much nonfiction.  I seem to be in an era of learning in my life--can't get enough of the stuff!  None of it is dry or mathematical.  It's all related to my interest--arts, mysteries, death, politics, history.  And Huler's comment made me realize how much is out there at which I've never looked before.  Nonfiction, fiction, a blend of the two...It's all around us!

What do you think?

Monday, March 7, 2011

History as Literature

"Why does history have to be a story told by sensible people and not the delirious raving of losers...?  If history--as appears to be the case--is just another literary genre, why take away from it the imagination, the foolishness, the indiscretion, the exaggeration, and the defeat that are the raw material without which literature is inconceivable?"
Tomás Eloy Martínez in Santa Evita, p. 129

What do you think?

Friday, March 4, 2011


We don't have any trees in our yard which we can climb.  It's a shame, really.  I love climbing trees and I would love to watch my kids explore the view from different heights.  There's nothing like the world one can create from the branches of a tree.

But this week the light was just right.  It shone through this one tree--each limb drawn on the ground with near God-like precision.

So we climbed it.

We climbed that shadow tree, my daughter and I, and we each found our perfect branch.  We stretched out long and we let our legs dangle.  We chatted about the view and about the animals perched beside us or above us in our secret tree.

We imagined.