I'm pleased and thrilled to announce that John Yonder and Captain Far's next adventure will be published by the good folks at Ellysian Press. Book 2 of the Yonder & Far series, tentatively titled The Tarot Tale, has been accepted by my publisher. More strange fae, more deadly battles, more Custom, and the 1800 presidential election set the stage for Yonder, Far, and Mary Faulkner's next exciting tale.
Matt's Occasional Writing Blog
So apparently Amazon has put my epic fantasy novel, The Mountain, on sale. Not something my publisher (or I) had planned, but it's appreciated nonetheless. I don't know how long it will last, but you can get a physical copy of The Mountain for $10.08--more than half off the initial list price of this 700+ page book. Click the book cover image for a link to the Amazon page.
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.
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
Thoughts and prayers for all the folks on the southern Gulf Coast.
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.
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.
There's a new website that curates "best of" lists for novels called Shepherd.com. Basically, authors create a top-5 list of books (best summer reads set in Iceland, best gothic mysteries with an animal sidekick, that kind of thing). My own contribution--best historical fantasy with a twist of myth and magic--is up now. The link is here.
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?
Boston 1798. Two fae gentlemen team up with a fortune-teller to catch a man who has stolen a magical lock of hair.
"Highly recommended." -- The Historical Fiction Company (5/5 stars)