Richard Montanari: One way to keep characters fresh is to have them, more or less, age in real time. Also, when they survive a life-changing event, they should emerge changed.
Richard Montanari: One way to keep characters fresh is to have them, more or less, age in real time. Also, when they survive a life-changing event, they should emerge changed.
This is a placeholder. Tomorrow morning I'll talk about how polished a manuscript needs to be before an agent will send it out on submission.
You never know who may be listening to you--Paul McCartney, "Take It Away"
How about those Academy Awards, huh? Were you shocked? I was stunned.
I'm lying. I wrote this a week before the Oscars. Hey. Life gets in the way sometimes.
Still, thinking about the glamor and silliness of Hollywood--and the best thing about the Academy Awards is how silly they are--got me to wondering. My writing has certainly not made me a household name, and I'm perfectly fine with that. But if I'm being accurate (to the best of my knowledge), my books have, in the past few years especially, sold conservatively in the tens of thousands, and that's probably an underestimate.
So after a while you start thinking that maybe one or two of those mass market paperbacks has made it into the hands of a famous person.
It's sort of a cool thought. Who might be a fan of the Haunted Guesthouse series? There's no way of knowing, really, unless said celebrity were to reach out and communicate with the author (that's me). And so far, they haven't, with one exception, who was a friend before the series started and has blurbed a couple of the books.
Erin posted a while back about the impression an author leaves when making public his/her thoughts about politics or some other sensitive topic. The flip side of that is wondering whether someone whose positions I support might be reading my work.
Or what if it's someone with whom I disagree vehemently? What would that say about my novel?
So in order to prevent myself considerable embarrassment (after this display of undigestible hubris), I've decided to provide a list of celebrities whom I hope are or will be fans of my work. Because you never know.
My Hoped-For Famous Fans
- Mel Brooks: Always at the top of my list, unless Harpo Marx is resurrected. If someone knows how I can get Mel a copy of any of my books, don't hesitate to get in touch;
- Jon Stewart: The smartest comedian at work for the past 15 years. Can take an incredibly obvious joke and still make it hilarious. I don't even care if he likes the book; I just want him to read one;
- Queen Latifah: Hey, a fellow alum of Frank H. Morrell High School and multitalented performer. Jersey girl with attitude, someone I'd be proud to have as a reader;
- Ringo Starr: The People's Beatle and funniest of the bunch;
- Steven Spielberg: Let's face it--if he were a loyal reader, Josh and I would have heard from him by now;
- Derek Jeter: Not only an unparalleled athlete entering his final campaign, but an aspiring publisher--someone get this man a book!
- Bette Midler: Because she's damn funny;
- Craig Ferguson: Doing the funniest, most subversive talk show on the air, and a fan of crime fiction who books authors on his show. Yeah, you could do worse;
- Neil DeGrasse Tyson: Simply the coolest guy in any room he enters. A superstar astrophysicist? You know if Dr. T. likes your work, you must be smart;
- Bill Murray: I'm not sure why, because I don't think he'd like my work, but I want to hope he would;
- George Clooney: This generation's attempt at Cary Grant, falling a little short but way closer than most of us get. Smart, talented, committed; what's not to like?
- Tina Fey: She's really funny, and if she publicly said she liked my books, my wife would be impressed with me for the first time this millennium;
- Gene Wilder: The best comic actor of the past 50 years, and an author in his own write.
To be fair, of course (or even not to be fair), it's probably right to list a few celebs who, if they are fans of my work, I'd appreciate keeping it to themselves:
- Ted Nugent: Yeah, and his music is lousy, too:
- Mel Gibson: I hold a grudge. Move on;
- Rush Limbaugh: You shouldn't have to ask why;
- The Duck Dynasty Guy: I'm almost ashamed to have a beard because of you;
- The Boston Red Sox: Nothing personal. It's a religious thing;
- Alec Baldwin: Luckily, he's getting out of public life, so that will never become an issue;
- Vladimir Putin: Keep your shirt on, Vlad. I didn't watch your Olympics, either, so we're even;
- John Travolta: If he can't get my name right, he's not going to be much help anyway; *
- Justin Bieber: Get help, man--or just get better advice, and listen to it;
- Isabel Allende: You know why.
For the record: I doubt any of these people has ever been in the same room with one of my books, but this is a fantasy league sort of thing, where you get to choose the names and assume they'll go along with you--or not. So that's my list. What's yours?
P.S. Recently the world of comedy has lost its grandfather and its funny uncle. Rest in peace, Sid Caesar and Harold Ramis. It doesn't matter how old you were; either way, it was much too soon. This is a world that can't afford to lose the laughs.
*Added after the Oscars
Cartoon by Nin Andrews
When this post pops up, I'll be just recently back from the annual AWP conference in Seattle.
Others (Kelli Russell Agodon, Nin Andrews, Kate Gale) have written (and drawn) far better than I ever could about the travails and wonders of AWP. The first time I attended AWP, when it was in Denver in 2010, I thought, well, I've done it and now I don't have to do it ever again.
I have attended almost all the AWPs since then. This will be my fourth. Every time, I think, I must stop doing this. It's awful. It makes me feel horrible.
But ... my friend(s) are going. And I have a new book, or I'm trying to have a new book. And most of all, what if I miss something? An opportunity, an amazing piece of writerly gossip, a MOMENT?
Like, if I hadn't gone last year, in Boston, I would have missed having super-terrific barbecue with the guys from sunnyoutside press. And if I hadn't gone to the one in 2012 in Chicago, I would have missed hearing my friend Daniel M. Shapiro telling Nikki Giovanni "Thanks for everything," which, in context, really made no sense. (Nor would I have the memory of standing on a corner in a clump of writers and getting doused in puddle water by a passing car.) If I'd skipped my first AWP, in Denver, I wouldn't have gotten to gasp with delight at meeting Sherman Alexie at the West Wind bookfair table. Speaking of the bookfair, I always come home with at least a dozen great new books.
Still -- it's a lot of money and mental anguish for the occasional moment of awesomeness. There are too many people, and it's too noisy, and nobody can really pay any attention to anyone else, and the whole thing makes you want to coil into a little ball and rock back and forth chanting "I am me, I'm still me, I'm the same person I've always been." I never write a word of any worth during AWP. I'm a gibbering mass of french-fry-seeking patheticness. Maybe I won't go in 2015. Seriously. I might not.
- Michael Marshall talks to Ron Hogan’s Beatrice about conceiving of his new novel, We Are Here, by meandering through New York City.
My personal experience with writing programs was my first semester at CSUSF. I enrolled in the creative writing program, and by the end of the semester I was dropping classes to keep my GPA just high enough to land on academic probation instead of being expelled outright. The following semester I loaded up on theater classes to lift my GPA, and never took another writing course in my life.
But the only conclusion you can really draw from that story is that me at that age and that writing program in that year were not compatible. I’m certain that there are any number of terrific programs out there that are genuinely productive in terms of helping their students to become better writers.
That said, I imagine that the single largest benefit of any writing program is that it is a focused environment devoted to the act of writing. Unless you become a professional writer earning a living wage off your work, you are unlikely to ever again be in such an environment and have a concentrated span of time during which you can devote yourself to your writing with few other distractions. The irony being that most students will only be in a position to avail themselves of this environment when they are at an age where their long term prospects as a writer might be better served by doing a whole lot of shit so as to accrue that life experience stuff.
What we in the trade refer to as: Shit to write about.
There is no good answer.
I have only two pieces of solid advice to anyone who wants to write for a living: Read and write a lot, and repeat.
As brutal as it sounds, if you have to struggle to get yourself to write and produce pages, that probably means that you’re not a writer. Desire and ideas are easy; sitting down and putting them on paper day after day is hard.
If you are a self-motivated writer who can’t stop worrying away at a thing until it’s “finished,” you may also be a good candidate for spreading your energy around into other areas rather than living in a scrivener’s hot house. If you have trouble self-starting and keeping at it, a writing program might teach you a new level of self-discipline that will carry you forward.
Regardless, go grab something by the short and curlies and don’t let go.
- Doug Dorst on being inspired to write.
- Michael Marshall, author of We Are Here, responds to SF Signal’s question about stepping outside one’s comfort zone when writing. Read the rest of his answer.
Today Mulholland Books has the great pleasure of publishing two chilling, supernatural-tinged thrillers: The Stolen Ones by Richard Montanari and We Are Here by Michael Marshall. While the two novels make for complementary reading, they couldn’t be more different. The Stolen Ones centers on killers who haunt forgotten catacombs and our dreams; We Are Here ventures that some of us really are being followed, but not by anyone we could imagine.
In the exchange that follows, Michael Marshall and Richard Montanari discuss their new novels and question each other about setting, genre, the writing process, and that all-important question for any writer: “How do I start?”
Michael Marshall: What was the genesis moment for The Stolen Ones? The idea that, in retrospect, caused the book to eventually exist? Was it recent—kind of like “This is what the next book’s going to be about”? Or did this book have to wait its turn to be ready to be written?
Richard Montanari: All my books begin with a “what if?” The Stolen Ones began with “What if the dreams of a killer could be implanted in another human being?” I put the idea on a shelf for a while, until I was able to gather together some of the shadowy research that has gone on in this area. The dream therapies in The Stolen Ones can happen. Once I was satisfied with that, the story took off.
We Are Here moves effortlessly between first and third person. Did you know from the start that John would be a first person character? What are the challenges of writing a novel from alternating points of view?
Marshall: I started using the combination of first and third back with The Straw Men, purely because I thought it might be interesting. I hoped to combine the intimacy of the first person with the broader perspective and freedom of the third person, and I’ve been doing it so long now that to be honest I’ve stopped noticing I’m even doing it — except when it comes to selecting the first person voice for a particular novel.
John was the obvious choice for We Are Here, partly because he’d been the first person voice in a previous novel, Bad Things (though it might have be interesting to switch him to third, precisely because of that), and also because he and Kristina form the backbone of the novel as a whole. The first person needs to be the person inside the book, the mainspring of the story’s action. John’s that guy.
Are you a planner as well as a writer? Do you hold this stuff in your head, or write it down? How much of what’s going to happen, big and small, do you need to know before you’re comfortable firing up the word processor and starting?
Montanari: I’d love to be a better planner and outliner. I’m convinced I would write more if I were. Usually, when I begin, I have an idea about who is doing the very bad things and why. From there the plot begins to take vague shape. The best part of writing a series, with recurring characters, is that I have a pretty good idea how they will react to certain things. They still surprise me, though.
Marshall: Which comes first—plot or research? Do you come up with story elements and then seek information to confirm or substantiate or support them? Or do you find ideas coming out of things you were reading for the fun of it, or places you just happened to be?
Montanari: The more I write, the more I realize (thankfully) that not everything is a good idea. I do a good bit of walking in circles at a running track trying to establish the connective tissue between two wholly disparate elements. Sometimes I’ll move forward anyway, but most of the time it is a matter of residue. If I can’t shake an idea, I have to deal with it. For me, research is the fun part. If I don’t know too much about a subject, I feel I can infuse a story with a sense of discovery. Research for The Stolen Ones took me to the sewer system beneath Philadelphia and to a mental health facility in northern Estonia.
Marshall: The Stolen Ones feels very firmly rooted in its city and locale. Is that important to you—the sense of place as character? How important to you is it to be able to see specific locations in your mind’s eye?
Montanari: I think sense of place is very important. The city of Philadelphia is one of the oldest in the United States. It has a long history, a diverse citizenry, many ghosts, and an underground culture that lends itself well to the stories I want to tell. I’ve used settings other than big cities in my work, but I always come back to the urban locale. Philly has more than one hundred neighborhoods. I am always discovering something new.
With its many parks and backstreets, New York lends itself perfectly to the “following” aspects of We Are Here. Did you ever consider setting those parts of the novel elsewhere?
Marshall: No — New York City was always going to be the venue once I decided to write the novel, not least as it’s effectively a character within it, too.
Your novels often take the mystery/thriller theme and imbue it with a strong vein of what one would have to call—much-maligned term though it is—“horror.” Is this a conscious attempt to blend genres, or simply where your imagination takes you? Do you enjoy playing with these distinctions, or do you wish people would stop trying to impose labels and let you write what you damn well please?
Montanari: It is purely unconscious. In fact, it never occurred to me that there were elements of horror in my work until a review pointed it out. Most of my work is, at its heart, police procedural, which means that the narrative is bound by certain rules and measures—a body is found, police show up, science is collected, witnesses are interviewed, investigations begin. Perhaps it is because I am drawn to basements, catacombs, abandoned psychiatric hospitals, and crawlspaces—fertile landscapes all for horror stories—that components of my work are considered horror. That said, some of the greatest writers of all time (certainly my favorites) have written horror. I don’t mind the label at all. For some reason, my short fiction is more mainstream horror, and my screenwriting is fantasy. I think form often determines genre for me.
I believe I read that The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub was instrumental in your decision to try your hand at fiction. Why that book (one of my favorites), and how do you think it has influenced you?
Marshall: Partly just because it came into my life at the right time. I think I’d started to realize I wanted to write, but hadn’t established the kind of story and imaginative landscape. I read The Talisman and immediately thought “Yeah, that. That kind of thing.” Quite apart from the majestic spread of the story, it represents an almost perfect combination of prose styles, seamlessly mixing the emotional warmth of King’s voice with the poised precision of Straub.
Montanari: You’ve written successfully in a number of genres and forms. When you have an idea for a story, do you instantly know where it will fit in your body of work? Have you ever started a project in one genre or form, gotten into it, and realized you needed a different set of narrative tools and rules to make the story work?
Marshall: I always work outwards from the idea, and so I tend to know where I’m going when I start. The factor that drives the decision about where a novel will sit in the—for me—rather nebulous and malleable genre landscape is that core notion, and it will always announces itself as being of one type or another. It either works within a totally “consensual” universe, or requires the doors of perception to be opened. I guess what I enjoy doing most is opening those doors as little as I have to—taking “otherworldly” ideas and grounding them as firmly within reality as possible, because they have much more resonance that way.
Montanari: What is the determining factor for you that an idea should be a short story, a novel, a teleplay, a screenplay? Is it the number of POV characters you have in mind, or something else?
Marshall: I seldom write original screenplays, though I have a few ideas stacked up for when I’ve got the time. I tend to think in fairly low-budget terms for the screen, and am drawn to ideas that need a simple, direct, visual treatment.
With prose choices it’s usually a matter of scope, how much time and space—and how many characters and locations—are required to support the central idea and story. I love the way you can come in fast and hard with a short story, say what you’ve got to say, and call it done. Sometimes that sparse, pared-down approach is the very best way of communicating an idea or emotion or atmosphere. Novels can be sparse too, but they need a breadth of ideas. Shorts can be just a single one.
Montanari: Congratulations on the BBC America project, Intruders. If you’re permitted to do so, what can you tell us about your role in the production, and what is involved in developing a novel into a series?
Marshall: My role is primarily being an extra pair of eyes on the scripts as they’re developed, and consulting on possible arcs for future seasons. This first series will effectively encompass the whole of the novel, and so the next step is working out how to develop the idea in a compelling way in future years. I’ve been in meetings around this, and have provided some initial discussion notes toward another four seasons.
The main challenge in developing a novel into a series is working out what to cut, what to add, how to show rather than tell, and how to move everything around to preserve suspense while proving the audience with enough information and drama to maintain their interest and excitement. Luckily, in Glen Morgan (lead writer, exec producer and showrunner for the series), they have a master of the form, with the experience to make it all work. I’ve read the first four episodes—and was present at the Table Read with the cast, just before principal photography started last week—and they’re looking great. It’s very exciting.
Interested in hearing more from Richard Montanari and Michael Marshall? Both authors have forthcoming events: on March 5th, Montanari will participate in a public Q&A with Tess Gerritsen on Goodreads. And on March 10th, Michael Marshall will be chatting with Malinda Lo and Kaye Wells in a Google Hangout moderated by Amal El-Mohtar. Please join us for these conversations!
BALTIMORE, MD--It's not about baseball. Not this time of year, although there are stirrings in Florida that can cause a fan's heart to hope. It's not about the impending retirement of the noble Derek Jeter or the welcome relief from the year-long sabbatical imposed on Mr. Rod. No, I'm not in Baltimore this weekend, staying within spitting distance of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, for the baseball. It isn't here yet.
A few months ago, we woke up one morning to a nasty scratching sound in our bedroom wall. This is not something you want to wake up hearing, but it was undeniable and just as unmistakable. Something was living inside our walls, and that something was larger than a mouse.
You can be all anthropomorphic about squirrels and how "cute" they are if you want, but when one has taken up residence in your attic, it's just a rat with a fuzzy tail, and one that can do a good deal of damage. So we had an "animal control expert" come by, and he determined exactly how Rocky was getting inside our house. There was a hole in the soffet next to our attic window.
I asked him if the hole could be plugged, and Mr. Ranger shook his head. "You need a roofer for that," he said.
Well, the time had come. We'd been living in this house for just about 20 years, perhaps to the day, and had not addressed our roof except for a few patches after Hurricane Sandy had her way with the entire state of New Jersey and its neighbors. So the roof now had to be replaced.
That's not why I'm in Baltimore. Hang on.
After batting around the idea of a new roof for a few days, Jessica and I decided it was best for a number of reasons, not the least of which involves our partners in all endeavors the IRS, to take our a home equity loan to pay for the roof. And if you're taking out a loan, you might as well get a few other things done. So we had a number of windows replaced too, just to experience the thrill (once this interminable winter, um, terminables) of opening a window and not having to prop it open with a book (I know, book lovers, but it's a cruel reality).
Still not the reason I'm in Barry Levinson's backyard. I'm getting there. Here. Wait.
Besides the roof and the windows, we had to prioitize the 15-million things that we could have chosen to fix in our ramshackle abode. And the one area (besides that roof) we'd been working hard not to discuss all these years was the staircase.
Our stairs, which go from the living room up to the bedrooms, were in desperate need of replacement. We'd talked to our contractor friend who lives across the street some time ago about repairing them because of the hideous, cacophonous creaking that caused us to pause the television anytime someone would walk up or down, or put the phone on mute because of the noise. And our contractor pal had informed us that repair wasn't an option. These stairs had to be ripped out and new ones put in. And he intimated, without actually coming out and saying it, that it was best we do so before someone were to head for the living room taking the local and end up there via the express. If you know what I mean.
So this weekend, two gentlemen (including our across-the-street neighbor) ripped up our staircase and installed a new and--since I can now verify it--vastly improved one. But it took the better part of three days, and there was no way to get up to our bedrooms while that was happening.
We decided on this particular weekend because it was one of the few coming up during which we had no plans, and initially assumed we'd book a couple of hotel rooms (one for us, one for our son the budding filmmaker and job seeker) and wait out the devastation. And then it occurred to me that if you're going to have a couple of hotel rooms anyway, it might be an idea to, you know, go somewhere.
It had to be within driving distance, and given the kind of weather we've been having since roughly Halloween, cancellable if necessary. And it might be a nice idea if we had an event, a destination, in mind for at least one day. So I started searching around.
And it turned out that this weekend, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra was playing a series of themes from science fiction film and television, featuring our host, George Takei. And since we're all big Takei fans in this house, the deal was done.
We returned Monday, before Josh's shift at the movie theater was to begin, to a lovely new and completely functional staircase, having enjoyed some film music presented by a distinguished group of musicians and an iconic actor and Internet personality. (Alas, there was no time to see Edgar Allan Poe's home as well.)
So greetings from Baltimore, Maryland, everybody. Except we're back in New Jersey now, and supposedly things will (sigh) return to normal. Sort of.
There's still painting and maybe a new floor in the kitchen to discuss.
*No squirrels were harmed in the posting of this blog.