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MATT'S OCCASIONAL WRITING BLOG

Authors Guild Tampa Bay Regional Happy Hour

See you next Thursday

Please join the Tampa Bay chapter of the Authors Guild for a happy hour on Thursday, May 23, 7:00 p.m. at m.bird rooftop lounge, 1903 Market Street, Tampa, Florida 33602. RSVP to chapter co-ambassador, Kiki Ringer at kiki@klrliterary.com if you're interested in going.

 

Hope to see you there!

 

-Matt

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Dune Part 2

Spoiler: the worms win.

A little late posting this, but I got around to seeing Dune Part 2. The movie picks up where the last one left off, with young Paul Atreidis and his Bene Gesserit mother, Lady Jessica, enmeshing themselves with the desert fremen of Arrakis. The psychotically evil Harkonnens have slaughtered most (but not quite all) of House Atreidis on the spice-laden planet. The grotesque, oil-bathing Baron has plenty of slaughtering to dole out in order to get Arrakis' spice production back on line. Which apparently needs to happen. Because, apparently, there's an emperor breathing down his neck. Or something. The movie's plot, much like the novel's, is a little dense (think "Star Wars," if it had been written by George R.R. Martin). 

 

Meanwhile, Paul's psychic powers are developing quickly. Thanks to his mother's machinations, and the psychedelic spice he's inhaling constantly, and some friendly fremen (including a love interest, Chani), he'll transform from a pale, brooding twenty-something boy into a pale, brooding twenty-something Messianic revolutionary. Who leads a guerilla army. And rides giant sand worms. The action moves from desert scene to desert scene, all of which pretty much look the same. There's battles, big and small. And did I mentioned giant sand worms?

 

Dune Part 2 is a gorgeous piece of desert cinema. Like the Shari-Hulud, the action swallows you whole. And if you're a fan of the novel, it stays pretty darned true to Frank Herbert's story line. All the political intrigue, and futuristic contrivance, and vaguely Arabic-sounding nomenclature is there.

 

But while, overall, Dune Part 2 is an improvement from the first installment, it still suffers from many of the same flaws. With the notable exception of the amazing Javier Bardem, the acting's still flat. Timothee Chalamet has added a dimension to the one-dimensional mope of Part 1--now, he yells sometimes. Which I suppose is an improvement. Despite all the spice, there is no chemistry--none, nada--between him and Zendaya, playing Chani. The "goods" are all fungibly reluctant iron-willed heroes; the "baddies" are all the same irredeemably awful psychopaths.

 

Paul and Chani get moved along from place to place, set piece to set piece, fight to fight, like marionettes on strings. So does the plot, come to think of it, but that's more of a shortcoming with the novel. What's not Herbert's fault is the movie's script. Like the first Dune, the dialogue is utterly banal. Seriously, I've read comic books that had more penetrating conversations. The musical score is serviceable, but, as with the last movie, it revolves around one harmonic minor strain, sung over and over and over and over ... The sand worms sounded more dynamic.

 

But what are you seeing this movie for? You're not buying a ticket to Dune Part 2 for deep introspection or romance or masterful story-telling. Of course not. But if you want breathtaking special effects and heart-stopping knife fights (there's a lot of those) and giant freaking sand worms, you will not be disappointed. I certainly wasn't.

 

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Quote of the Day

 

"The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon."

 

 

— Brandon Sanderson

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Thinking About Music …

Play that funky music.

(*Updated re-post from 2023)

 

Ah, the understated joys of parenthood: like when one of your children lovingly mocks you in the form of a Pokémon card. 

 

I've been a piper for almost fifteen years and consider myself solidly mediocre (as the picture here evidences, I'm just good enough to play a tune or two for my church or lodge). There's actually not much music to bagpipes (there's only nine notes); mostly, it's an instrument of technique and physical stamina. Irish flautist, Sir James Galway, once remarked that the one time he tried playing the pipes was like blowing into an octopus. I assume that comparison was based on speculation, and it's probably not far off the mark. But I digress. 

 

Music often comes up in writing, especially in the fantasy genre. Perhaps it's because Tolkien wove so many songs into The Hobbit, or perhaps it's because music was one of the few forms of entertainment widely available in pre-industrial societies, or perhaps a lot of fantasy authors are simply frustrated bass guitarists (okay, so no one is ever a frustrated bass guitarist, but you get the idea). But having characters sing a song--and then writing out the song's verses--is very much a thing in fantasy fiction, almost a trope.

 

I was looking back over some of my stuff and realized I've done it a few times myself. My very first novel (a long, middle-grade animal fantasy) has about five different songs the characters sing at various points along their journey. The Mountain has one, too. Yonder & Far: The Lost Lock has a chapter that weaves in and out of a character singing a lament (the lyrics are very loosely based on an Oscar Wilde poem). It's not something I really set out to include, but it does seem to pop up from time to time in what I'm writing.

 

Music in prose can be a bit tricky, though. Sometimes the songs that come up in fantasy novels can come off a little flat (pardon the pun). To be honest (and, please Tolkien fans, this is meant as no disrespect, so hold on to your pitchforks and torches), I've always glazed over the songs Tolkien put in his books (I mean, I could kind of get a feel for the goblin songs in The Hobbit, but it was a little hard to catch the tune of "O! Tril-lil-lil-lolly the valley is jolly! ha! ha!"). In fact, I'll go so far as to say that fashioning music into prose more often ends up as a distraction than an enhancement of the story.

 

And yet ... music is an important part of life. For a lot of people, music resonates with something deeper, even something divine. So it's only natural that if a writer is crafting a fantasy world, she or he would want to weave music into it in some way. How does one pull it off so that readers are humming to themselves, and not just flipping past pages? 

 

Two things, I think, can help a song in a novel truly sing. First and foremost, the music has to serve the story, not the other way around. Is recounting twelve verses of metered rhyme doing anything to propel the narrative, a conflict, a character arc, in any way? Is it foreshadowing something? Does it serve any purpose in the novel? If the honest answer is not really, then it probably needs to stay out. Second (and perhaps more challenging), is it actually musical? Often what's described in a fantasy novel as a character or a group singing a song comes across as a character or a group reciting a poem. There is a different beat and meter for spoken poetry than sung music (the latter must generally be shorter and punchier than the former). One trick I've found that makes a song in a story more likely to work: sing what you've written. Yeah, that's right, author. You want your reader to read your song? Sing it to them. Whether it's a tune you've made up or one you've heard somewhere, it doesn't matter. Sing your song. What this trick does is it puts what you've written to the musical test--if it can't be sung, it's not a song.

 

If your story needs a song in it, and if what you've written fits the bill of a singable song, then your reader will be less tempted to breeze past the singing parts, and might just try to sing along with you.

 

- Matt

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Titling

What else would you call these?

Titles. They are perhaps the first thing a potential reader sees when scanning a bookshelf or scrolling through an online store. With font-sizes approaching triple-digits, a title is even more important than a cover. 

 

I got to thinking about titles lately with a stand-alone fantasy book I have that's now in editing with Montag Press. I had a working title that I've never been crazy about (neither was my editor); now we're batting around some alternatives. It's a tricky business coming up with a title that both captures your story and markets your book. Sometimes a title hits you and it just sounds ... right. For me, Look With Your Eyes and Yonder & Far were settled and set in stone pretty early on in the creative process and never changed. The Mountain was more of a challenge to name (and, truth is, if I could've come up with something better, I would have). As for the current book in editing ... well, let's just say it doesn't seem to like its name so far. We'll get it pinned down, though. :)

 

There are so many different approaches to titling a book. You can do the iconic, one-word grab. Dune. There's a title that, even apart from the story, seemed destined to invoke something timeless. Others carry a stray phrase, something that only gains context from the story--To Kill a Mockingbird, for example--which intrigues and invites a reader to pick up the book. A title might harken the salacious (there's a host of recent books out with "F*ck" wedged into the title). Umberto Eco titled his masterpiece historical fiction novel, The Name of the Rose, not from anything to do with the story, but because he liked how it sounded (the Name of the Rose movie directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud actually wove in an ending line that tied the title in quite smoothly). 

 

Next to writing the hated back-cover blurb for a novel, there may be no harder exercise of summation and marketing than titling one's story.

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Seeing One’s Book on a Strange Shelf

Check it out.

It's always a thrill when you see one of your books on a strange shelf. All the more so when that strange shelf is at your local public library. I was pleasantly surprised to see The Mountain available for public reading in South Tampa's Jan Kiminis Platt Library. It's keeping company with such luminary works as The Last Party and The Story of My Teeth. :)

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In Praise of the Oxford Comma

Commas do indeed save lives.

I am no grammarian (as my editors will attest). I didn't major in English. But I have always, and continue to have, strong feelings about the existential importance of the Oxford (serial) comma's use in the English language. In that spirit, enjoy ...

 

From O'Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy, 851 F.3d 69, 75 n.5 (1st Cir. 2017):

 


Before leaving our discussion of serial commas, we would be remiss not to note the clarifying virtues of serial commas that other jurisdictions recognize. In fact, guidance on legislative drafting in most other states and in the Congress appears to differ from Maine's when it comes to serial commas. Some state legislative drafting manuals expressly warn that the absence of serial commas can create ambiguity concerning the last item in a list. One analysis notes that only seven states—including Maine—either do not require or expressly prohibit the use of the serial comma. See Amy Langenfeld, Capitol Drafting: Legislative Drafting Manuals in the Law School Classroom, 22 Perspectives: Teaching Legal Res. & Writing 141, 143-144 (2014); see also Grace E. Hart, Note, State Legislative Drafting Manuals and Statutory Interpretation, 126 Yale L.J. 438 (2016). Also, drafting conventions of both chambers of the federal Congress warn against omitting the serial comma for the same reason. See U.S. House of Representatives Office of the Legislative Counsel, House Legislative Counsel's Manual on Drafting Style, No. HLC 104-1, § 351 at 58 (1995) (requiring a serial comma to "prevent[ ] any misreading that the last item is part of the preceding one"); U.S. Senate Office of the Legislative Counsel, Legislative Drafting Manual § 321(c) at 79 (1997) (same language as House Manual).

 


From Bryan A. Garner, Garner's Modern English Usage, p. 982 (5th ed. 2022): " … including [the Oxford comma] never creates an ambiguity, whereas omitting it fairly often does."

 

And, last of all:

 

 

I love cooking my pets and my family

 

Don't be a serial killer

 

Use serial commas and love cooking, your pets, and your family

 

 

 

 

 

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QUOTE OF THE DAY

"I'm a very organized and rational and linear thinker, and you have to stop all that to write a novel."

 

- Hilary Mantel

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MYTHBEHAVING INTERVIEW

Best. Podcast. Ever.
 

It's always a pleasure getting to chat with author and social media expert, Jenn Nixon, and author and editor, RobRoy McCandless. Especially when it's about book-writing. We had a delightful half hour of meanderings, banter, and chicanery discussing our writing process, the slog of marketing, and how awesome parents are.

 

Be sure to check out the latest Mythbehaving podcast on Spotify, featuring yours truly, Jenn, and Rob.

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