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Matt's Occasional Writing Blog

Music in Writing

It sounds worse than it looks

One of the understated joys of parenthood is when your children lovingly mock you in the form of a Pokémon card. 

 

I've been an off-and-on piper for almost fifteen years and consider myself solidly mediocre (as the picture here evidences, I'm just good enough to play a tune in church on St. Andrew's Sunday--but only if the church is big with lot of echoes and the congregation is especially charitable). The bagpipes are actually the fourth instrument I've picked up since childhood. My mom very much encouraged my learning classical music when I was growing up (though I like to think she came around to jazz and rock later on). Whatever the style, music was very much a thing in the Lucas house of the 70's and 80's. 

 

I bring this up because 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 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 pretty much glanced past most of the tunes Tolkien ever 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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The “Big Five” are Still Big and Still Five

Although this blog has studiously and steadfastly refrained from veering into anything pertaining to the law, a recent legal ruling out of the D.C. District Court merits some mention, if only because it shed some really interesting light on the publishing industry. The case is United States v. Bertelsmann SE & Co., et al., but it's more widely known in the media and the writing industry as the blocked merger of two giants in the publishing industry. 

 

I'll preface this post by repeating the caveat of this blog: nothing in this post should be construed as legal advice, nor as any kind of indication as to how any judicial officer on my court or any other might view a particular case.


The case itself arose from an antitrust challenge to a proposed merger between Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster, two of the so-called "Big Five" publishing conglomerates (the other three being, HarperCollins, Hachette Book Group, and MacMillan Publishing Group). The government opposed the merger. Its case turned on a monopsony theory. Unlike the more familiar term monopoly (which, besides being a beloved board game, is the word economists use when they focus on how many sellers there are in a market), a monopsony occurs when there are too few market buyers (here, the buyers being the Big 5 as purchasers of book manuscripts). The trial lasted 12 days, after which the district judge (who now sits on the D.C. Court of Appeals) entered her ruling. It spans 80 pages. It's a bit of a dense read, but there were several points of interest to those who write for a living or for a hobby. I'll hit on a few of them.

 
First and foremost, it seems that the Big Five publishers' curation of potential manuscripts for profitable books is not so much an exercise of discerning quality, but a crap shoot. Actually, a game of dice in a casino would probably give better odds than what the Big Five churn out. Despite hundreds of imprints and all the resources the Big Five employ, "only 35 out of 100 books turn a profit … [and] the top 4 percent of profitable titles generate 60 percent of profitability." Indeed, the CEO of Penguin Random House likened publishers to "angel investors" who invest in thousands of books, knowing only a few will make it to the top. As such, the advance (that is, the upfront non-refundable advance payment of anticipated royalties to the author) is "the single most important term" in a Big 5 publishing contract—because most Big Five authors won't earn it out. In fact, the largest segment of Penguin Random House's revenues comes from their back list, not their new titles. As for smaller presses (of which, I can attest, there are many), the testimony before the court was that they merely serve as a "farm team" or "minor league" to the Big Five publishers; self-publishing was discarded as an insignificant factor in the industry.

 
The court's legal analysis is, as one would expect, comprehensive. I won't get too far into the weeds (first, because this isn't a legal blog, and second, because it has been many years since I've even had to think about antitrust law). But here's a rough summary. As the district court observed, Section 7 of the Clayton Act prohibits mergers and acquisitions when the concentration "may … substantially lessen" competition in a relevant market. The question before the court, then, was whether the proposed merger between Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster would have an anti-competitive effect on acquiring manuscripts from authors. But what market of manuscripts was pertinent? The district court answered that question by employing a relatively narrow definition of the book acquisition market. The legal case was not so much about the state of the market for book acquisitions in general or even within the Big Five. The monopsony the court honed in on in this case was the market for "anticipated top-selling books," which, as noted earlier, turns out to be a pretty small sliver of book manuscripts. In fact, the market the court chose to address was the market for manuscripts that garner a $250K advance or greater. That market, the district court concluded, has only five buyers, and since those five vigorously compete for those titles, reducing the number from five to four—with the merged companies accounting for 49% of the acquisition market—would indeed result in reduced competition for top-selling manuscripts to such a degree that the proposed merger violated antitrust law.


Although this case has generated a considerable amount of discussion within the writing community at large, the set of writers the court was really considering—those whose manuscripts can fetch a quarter million dollar advance—was actually pretty small. I suspect the number of professional authors who fit that description could have all fit within the courtroom with some seats to spare. But the effects of blocking the merger will surely have broader impacts on writers (if not on the books the get published). I'll leave it to others to ponder what those might be.

 
Like I said, this really seemed to be a case about big publishing and big authors. The district court's relegation of independent publishers (whether small presses or self-published authors) to the outskirts of publishing significance has been discussed and decried by some folks. As a small press author, it did give me a chuckle to be informed that apparently I'm in the "farm system" for big league conglomerates in New York City. All I'll say is that courts have to work with the evidence they are given. I've not done an exhaustive review of the witness list in this case, but it appears that the government and the defendants' witnesses were largely drawn from the Big Five industry (whether publishing company officers, literary agents, editors, or major authors). And given the definition of the relevant market the court ultimately adopted, the court's remarks about independent publishing makes sense. Put it this way: it would have been somewhat awkward for the court to have made a factual finding that the fastest growing segment of book releases comes from independent publishers, but the market for the smallest sliver of the Big Five's releases needs antitrust enforcement.

 
At the end of the day, I suspect this decision won't have much of an impact for the majority of writers (or, at least, I don't think it will affect me). That's because most writers these days aren't working under a Big Five contract—and certainly not contracts with quarter million dollar advances. They'll keep doing what they do, and the book-buying market will keep responding to the books that they like—whether those books come from Simon & Schuster, or Kensington, or Ellysian, or Kick Starter. But the court's ruling does provide an illuminating peek behind the curtain of an industry in transition.

 

If you're interested in reading the court's 80-page ruling (and, I mean, who wouldn't be), you can find it here:Judge Pan's ruling

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Who’s On First?

Most of the stuff I've written is in third person (non-omniscient) with multiple points of view (usually focused on 3-4 main characters and perhaps a couple of secondaries). It's a natural form for story-telling. And it's fun. It allows the author to craft scenes around the most effective perspective; it lets you change the "voice" of the writing from scene to scene; it gives you a chance to explore different characters more deeply. Maybe because it comes so naturally, and because it has so much utility, I've just gravitated toward 3rd person POV.

 

But twice I've ventured into first person POV for novels. The first one was based on a short story ("Don't Call Me Godless"), and I finished it about a year ago (I've been shopping it around for the past five months). The second one is my current work in progress. Here's what I've figured out about writing in 1st person.

 

It's a lot more organic. There's almost this sleight of hand you get to play with a first person POV, where you (hopefully) end up fooling the reader by pretending to be the narrator. The old saw, "show don't tell" just seems a little easier in the first person. I'll also say that for a discovery writer who constructs a good amount of plot structure during the writing process, 1st person POV is a much more straight-forward form. The story line has to be set around one set of eyes, from one experience, and, more or less, along one plot line. It's almost like you're putting together a recipe for a cookbook. So there's less wasted time on scenes, characters, etc. that end up getting cut later on.

 

But there's also a challenge that I've been struggling with. When you write a whole novel from one character's first person POV, you'd better like that character. A lot. Because you're going to be spending a lot of time with him or her. There's no taking a break from the main character in these kind of stories. If the main character's kind of flat, or dull, or annoying, or a trope, then it's going to be a long 12 months of writing. 

 

Like all the choices that get made during the writing process, there are pros and cons to writing in the first person. I'm not sure it's something I'll do on a regular basis, but I do like the exercise of trying something different.

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If You Want to Know How Choose Your Own Adventures Came to Be, turn to ….

For those who grew up in the 80's and remember fondly the fun of Choose Your Own Adventure books (those illustrated chap books told in the 2nd person where the reader is poised with a choice on each page and, depending on her or his choice, flips to a different page), there was a really good article in the New Yorker telling the "backstory" (so to speak) of how these books came to be...The Enduring Allure of Choose Your Own Adventure Books

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Top Five Most Annoying Platitudes

I'm middle-aged. Which means I'm probably prone to complain about things a little more than I used to.  I'm also a writer, which means I'm a little bit sensitive to how language gets used. So indulge my grumping for a moment, because I expect many of you may share this sentiment.

 

There are some really annoying platitudes that have gotten bandied about lately. I'm not talking about a trendy word (such as "like," which the current crop of teenagers invoke to a degree that would make Shaggy Rogers blush). I mean the phrases of the zeitgeist that I keep running into. They're terrible. Banal. Useless. Here are the five that irk me the most.

 

1. "It is what it is." I don't know of any more pretentious sentiment than "it is what it is." On its own terms, the sentence is redundant meaninglessness. Like saying A = A. You could just stop with "It is." But of course that's not what's meant by this little piece of modern witticism. A person only invokes "it is what it is" when he or she wants to convey understanding of something that is unfortunate or difficult without, you know, necessarily understanding it. It's pretend profundity. Try turning it around by asking, "well, what exactly is it?" They'll curl up like a turtle because they don't really know and have nothing to say.

 

2. "I'll fight you on this." Here's another bit of LARPing parlance that I've been hearing more and more frequently. It's always expressed with feigned earnestness, usually by a person who's never actually thrown or taken a punch. What it really means is that the topic or point of view or opinion under discussion is one that actually instills some kind of feeling on the part of the speaker, and he or she is unlikely to change their mind about it. That's it. They don't actually want to get into a rumble. Which is what's so grating about "I'll fight you on this" because, growing up, "I'll fight you" were three words that usually preceded an actual fight. Again, turn this around on the speaker and say, "Okay, there's a boxing gym down the road. Meet you in twenty minutes." 

 

3. "You do you." This is of a piece with "It is what it is," but salted with a little more insult. I suppose it's the modern equivalent of the old Southern expression, "Well, bless your heart" (which was never really meant as a blessing). Anyway, I don't like it.

 

4. "Follow your truth." I'm not going to get into metaphysics versus linguistics; I'm not going to hash through Arisotlean versus post-modern or emotivist worldviews. Here's the thing, though. For most people, "truth" carries an objective component to it. It's supposed to express an accepted point of (potentially) mutual understanding. But the animating sentiment underlying "Follow your truth" is idiosyncrasy. It's literally a call to celebrate a subjective ontology. Which is all well and good. But let's keep words expressing objective commonality apart from words of individual possession. Because "your truth" carries about as much meaning as "my universe." 

 

5. "It takes a village." This is a fine old African proverb that got turned into a book title that, in turn, became an overused piece of triteness to trot out whenever someone scolds someone else's kid. It's a lovely sentiment but, much like Orff's O Fortuna, it just got overplayed.

 

Okay, that's it for the rant. Feel free to add any I may have missed. I promise, I won't "fight you" over it.

 

- Matt

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Light Blogging

Haven't been as dutiful as I should on the blog-front. An out-of-town conference followed by an unexpected (but fortunately brief) illness set me back a bit.

 

But by way of a quick update: I've finally finished the self-edits to the second book of the Yonder & Far series. Tentatively entitled, The Tarot Tale, it's a fun story that melds the political intrigues of Yonder's realm with the political intrigues of the 1800 election.

 

Now that I've (finally) finished and sent that manuscript off, I've decided to return to a novel I started poking at about 10 years ago. It's more contemporary and set in Florida, but it's definitely got a weird/speculative vibe to it. It ran into a wall at about the 1/3 point, and over the years I kinda half-heartedly tried to slog it along, but it just wasn't writing. Now I think I've finally figured out a good middle act that gets around the blockage (by which I mean, I'm basically re-writing what I've started). But I'm excited to be working on it.

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Research & Writing

"Sure is a lot of stuff out there on the internets."

Because I write in a vein of historical fiction, I sometimes get asked about research. Usually, the question is along the line of how deep do you have to delve into historical research when you write a novel in this genre.

 

For me, the honest answer is "enough not to look dumb." 

 

There are a lot of historical fiction writers who could probably pass themselves off as historians. They comb through original sources, translate documents, do all the things real historians do. And sometimes that comes off great--Patrick O'Brian, for example, was absolutely fastidious when it came to the mechanics of navigating and fighting naval ships in the Age of Sail. But he was also a heck of a story-teller. Being the latter, to my mind, is more important than the former. Because I've also read a fair amount of historical fiction and fantasy where it's obvious the author relished his or her research a bit too much and felt compelled to machinate each and every granular detail of what they uncovered into their story. Those can be tedious books to read.

 

So for me, when I come to a plot point or a setting that relies on history, I Google around a bit to get the lay of the land. Then I try to find one or two credible authorities to provide the foundation for the background that I need. Those might be books. Sometimes they're academic papers (for Yonder & Far: The Lost Lock, I read through a UMass graduate student's thesis that, for some reason, was published online, to gain some understanding of African-American society in 1800 Massachusetts). Often times, these jaunts of research will yield an idea that I end up using (in the Lost Lock, I happened across a piece about the undeclared French War in the late 18th Century, which ended up getting a prominent feature in the book). But because I have a limited amount of time to invest between research and writing, I try to limit these forays. Again, I only want to get to the point where I can confidently say, "I don't think I'll look dumb if I write this." 

 

The Yonder & Far manuscript I just finished, tentatively entitled The Tarot Tale, has two areas that required me to hit the books. The first was the presidential election of 1800. For those who don't recall their high school history class, that was the one that was (mostly) between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. And if you think recent U.S. elections were heated, do a little dive into what went on in 1800! Now, this is a topic of incredible complexity (in particular because at the time, each of the States had different methods of choosing their presidential electors). There was no way I was ever going to master it--but I'm not writing a book of history. I'm writing a historical fantasy that has the election of 1800 as a background feature. So, in order not to luck dumb, I hit a couple of books: the late, great David McCullough's biography on John Adams and A Magnificent Catastrophe by Edward J. Larson. Between the two books, I gleaned enough to fill out a suitable setting for my characters to get into all sorts of adventures. 

 

The second area I needed to gain some insight into was Tarot reading. As the name of the title implies, Tarot features heavily in this story. Now, here was a topic I knew nothing about. And so I ended up taking a little bit of historical license with it. But for a good reason. Historically speaking, people have been using cards for divination for hundreds of years. But what most people recognize as Tarot reading really didn't have a significant following until after around 1910 with the publication of the Waite-Smith Tarot deck of cards (of which, the 10 of Wands is pictured above). There is a metric ton of information available online and in books on these "modern" cards--it didn't take me long to feel like I knew enough for my fortune-telling character to provide insightful readings. But there wasn't nearly as much out there on the older decks that were in use in 1800 (plus, to be honest, the cards weren't nearly so vibrant and dynamic as the Waite-Smith deck). In order to resonate more with readers, my story relies upon the Waite-Smith deck even though the events are set in 1800. But by taking a little time to learn this new topic, I hopefully will make up for that little license.

 

The balance between in depth historical research and story-telling is a balance different historical fiction writers strike in different places. What are your favorite areas of historical fiction and how do your favorite writers tackle history?

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The End (of the First of Many Drafts)

There is nothing more satisfying--or unnerving--than typing "THE END" at the conclusion of a 100k-word manuscript. Satisfying because it represents the culmination of months and months of grinding through a story. Unnerving because the next step is months more of grinding through self-editing the story. It's a tiresome slog that comes around (for me, at least) about once a year, much like taxes. But it's part of the process.

 

But I'll focus on the good news. I've just finished the rough first draft of the second book in my Yonder & Far series. Tentatively entitled, "The Tarot Tale," this installment picks up where "The Lost Lock" left off. Mr. Yonder and Captain Far are off on a new caper. Lots of action, lots of twists and turns, sprinkled with a good deal of weird U.S. history surrounding the election of 1800, and, as the title suggests, there's more than a bit of the occult woven throughout. It was a blast to write (much like the first). I'm very pleased with how it came out.

 

But first there are plot holes to fill, characters to trim, dialogue to tighten, arcs to round out... I'll hold off a month at least before I dive back into it (if you want to know why, take a listen to my interview on the Mythbehaving podcast). If all goes well, though, by the autumn, I should have something to present to my publisher. Hopefully, they'll like it as much as I do.

 

Have a safe and happy summer,

 

Matt

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Happy Birthday, America!

Baby Back Ribs a la Lucas

Happy Fourth of July, everyone! In a country which has the freedom of speech as its "first right," it's not suprising that the good ole' U.S. of A has generated a rich bounty of writing since its founding. So in the spirit of the Fourth, here are my four favorite American books, by Americans, for or about America:

 

 

1. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave: the ultimate story of overcoming and triumph, one of Douglass' autobiographies, and one of the best ever written. There are passages that are absolutely haunting, despite the span of years.

 

2. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin: Franklin is a fascinating figure. You would think the autobiography of this polymath would be stuffed full of sweeping ideas or profound witticisms. There's a little bit of that scattered throughout, but its focus is mostly on his personal aspirations, plans (he always had them--and he recounts them all, successes as well as failures), reflections, and even some grudges he held. Honestly, Douglass' and Franklin's autobiographies could stand as bookends of American writing.

 

3. John Adams, by David McCullough: sweeping, insightful, layered with detail (but not overtly academic), this is a masterfully done biography that sheds much light on an overshadowed man.

 

4. The poetry of Emily Dickinson: I've never cared for poetry, to be honest. But my late mother was an enormous fan of Dickinson (she even wrote a book about her poetry), and, perhaps for that reason, I have a soft spot for this death-obsessed New Englander. Intermixed with all the metaphysics she wrestles with are sweeping, natural reflections, New England sensibilities, and religion, all of which, I think, put her finger on the pulse of America in the mid Nineteenth Century.

 

What's some of your favorite American writing?

 

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The Zen of Bowling (which kinda-sorta has something to do with writing)

This guy is in his nirvana. 

Most folks have had an occasion to attend a work-related seminar or course. They can be ... hit and miss. To keep things fresh, some instructors will try to weave their personal hobbies into their teaching. I've seen it quite a few times. "How axe throwing made me a better orthopaedic surgeon." "Crochet tips for the airplane mechanic." "Karate's lessons for civil lawsuit mediators." (One of these is actually real). Don't get me wrong. Hobbies are great. Everyone needs a hobby. But why this compulsion to machinate one's favorite past-time into teaching about one's work?

 

The answer, I think, is that most folks like to share the things that bring them joy. And since for most folks work can sometimes (oftentimes? most times? invariably?) be a drudge, perhaps it's only natural to want to try to air-drop a little outside happiness into it. 

 

In this post, I'm going to take that inclination one step further--and mix one fun hobby with another.

 

I like to bowl. Ever since I was 5 and my father would take me to the church league on Friday nights (staying up until midnight, granny-shooting 6 lbs chipped up alley balls, getting four quarters for the arcade--what's not to like?). I actually took a bowling class at FSU. I've kept up with it, on and off, over the years. Right now, I'm bowling between 140-150 on average. That's after bowling about once a week, week in and week out, for the past year and a half. And in that time, I have twice hit what had been a lifelong goal: breaking 200 (this last time, I hit it right on the nose; if I hadn't whiffed on picking up the ten pin on 2 consecutive frames, I could have pushed it over 220). Anyhow, hitting that benchmark twice got me to thinking about writing.

 

Twice I've had the privilege of publishing a novel with a press. Each offer felt like I had hit a milestone; each experience was richly rewarding. But there was a LOT of failure (gutter balls, if you will) along the way. Draft manuscripts that went nowhere, scenes that fell flat, characters who never came to life, prose that made me wince.

 

The thing is, that still happens, tiny successes notwithstanding. Like in bowling, I still make plenty of misses in my rough drafts. But here's the other thing: those misses aren't as bad as they used to be. If I miss the ten pin a little high, well, that's better than cleaning out the gutter. I need to tweak something, not change my whole approach. So, too, with writing. The problems I catch in editing a finished ms (and there's always ample plenty of them) may require a great deal of work, but they don't require a rewrite of the whole manuscript. That's improvement. And improvement leads to bigger and better milestones. More 200 games, fewer missed spares.

 

Here's hoping you make all your spares. 

 

Happy writing,

 

Matt

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