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Monday, August 23, 2010

Talking about the bad guys...

It's my day to blog at The LadyKillers , and the current topic is "villains."  I had fun talking about the villains in my Faye Longchamp books, but only in passing, because I don't want to spoil the books for you.  However, my ebook, Wounded Earth, is a thriller, meaning that the villain is front and center for the entire book.  And when the villain has a name like Babykiller, you know from the beginning of that book that this is a bad man.

Wounded Earth

I talk a bit about Babykiller on The LadyKillers today.  I hope you'll hit that LadyKillers link up there and join me.
Mary Anna

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

You knew I'd dip into the Beatles songbook, sooner or later...

I'm back with another popular song that can teach students of fiction a thing or two.  I'm fascinated by music--by any art, really--that transcends the passage of time.  I recognize a sister in Jane Austen when I read her sharp and usually affectionate skewering of her own society, and I am always astonished to remember that she was writing 150 years before I was born.

If I'm looking at popular music for examples of this phenomenon of art for all time, I'd be an idiot not to look at The Beatles.  They arrived on the scene just as mass media made it possible set the world afire in a way that had never happened before and likely can never happen again.  I was born in the 1960s, so I barely remember The Beatles' phenomenon, but I appreciate their work a great deal.  My 14-year-old daughter can't even imagine life in a world of dial phones and untrammeled smoking in public places, but she is a huge Beatles fan.  The Summer of Love is receding far into the past, but "Yesterday" has a timeless quality that lives on.

Today, there are just too many channels and stations and blogs and websites and media venues for one artist to dominate the culture so completely. Still, Beatlemania would not have survived for a half-century if those lads had not been exceptionally talented songcrafters.  You probably think that I'm going to whip a mega-hit out of the Lennon-McCartney songbook to talk about tonight, but you're wrong.  George Harrison was a writer of delicate masterpieces, but he was laboring in the shadow of his larger-than-life friends, so he gets overlooked.  Let's look at one of his finest songs:  While My Guitar Gently Weeps

First, take a moment to admire that title with me.  I could actually point to that phrase as an example of great writing and quit writing this post.  This title, which is the song's hook, speaks of the love affair between a musician and his constant musical companion.  It speaks of the emotion that pours out of that musician so freely that it seems to come out of the guitar itself.  And the image of someone gently weeping reaches right into my heart and twists it.  Well done, Sir George.

I look at you all...see the love there that's sleeping
While my guitar gently weeps
I look at the floor and I see it need sweeping
Still my guitar gently weeps 

The singer is just sitting there, looking at someone he loves, and he's grieving.  It's a timeless, still moment that extends while he looks around the quiet room and sees the dust on the floor.  He is as far from picking up a broom as a man can be.  He can't do anything but hold his guitar gently and let it speak for him.

Is there a fancy word in this stanza?  There's hardly an adjective or an adverb here, and one thing I almost always do with beginner manuscripts is to take a light saber to three-quarters of the adjectives and adverbs.  Flowery modifiers tend to suffocate the message.  Harrison has excised them, and the adverb "gently" shines so brightly because he did.

I don't know why nobody told you
how to unfold your love
I don't know how someone controlled you
they bought and sold you

Someone--I presume it is a woman--has made a mistake in love.  She--and I presume he loved her--has been betrayed by someone who treated her as a thing of value to be bought and sold.  He doesn't blame her for this tragedy.  He blames them.  And he has told us so, again, without a single flowery descriptor.

I look at the world and I notice it's turning
While my guitar gently weeps
With every mistake we must surely be learning
Still my guitar gently weeps 

He's taken a step back from noticing the dust on the floor...a big step back.  He's so detached that he notices the world in its turning.  Nothing is moving but the earth on its axis and his fingers on that guitar.  He indulges himself in an extraneous adverb--"surely"--but it's needed to drive that third line's rhythm hard, and he wants to move on from this mistake as inexorably as the world turns.

I don't know how you were diverted
you were perverted too
I don't know how you were inverted
no one alerted you 

Excuse me, Sir George, but what are you saying here?

Well, I know what he's saying.  It's the same message as the last stanza.  Someone fooled this woman into a betrayal, turning her upside down, and nobody warned her.  You can sing this trippy stanza if you're George Harrison, but if I were covering the song, I'd have to leave it out.  I also couldn't pull off the Liverpool accent to properly sing "divuhted," "purvuhted," "invuhted," or "aluhted," but it sounds great when he sings it.

(This is akin to my difficulty with the song I dissected three posts back, "Dream On."  I can sing along with the recording.  I can do that monster slide.  I can do those bluesy vocal tricks.  I can even hit the high notes on those shrieking "Dream on"s at the end.  But I can't do those shrieks with a straight face, so no one but my kids will ever hear me do it.  Only the original artist can pull off such shenanigans in public.  Trust me on this.)

And then, on the original Beatles recording, he repeats the chorus and quits.  However, the internet gifted me with these additional lyrics from the original Harrison version:

I look from the wings at the play you are staging
While my guitar gently weeps
As I'm sitting here doing nothing but aging
Still my guitar gently weeps

I simply adore this, and I would absolutely include it in any cover of this song.  Our singer is still the motionless observer, watching the drama the nameless woman has staged and playing a mournful guitar accompaniment as that drama ends.  He has watched the dust pile up on the floor and he has watched the world turn and these things are just reminders that time has passed.  Nothing has happened.  But this isn't true.  He's getting older.  Maybe he'll heal and maybe he won't.  Maybe he'll never do anything but sit there and play.  But his guitar, his first love, sits with him and weeps.

Go ahead and break out The White Album, whether you listen to it on your ipod or a CD or a cassette or...does anybody still own an eight-track?...or on vinyl.  You know you want to.

Happy listening...
Mary Anna

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Some cool news...

I'm taking a break from my literary appreciation of rock lyrics to share several bits of good news with you people.

First, my Faye Longchamp novels--Artifacts, Relics, Effigies, Findings, and Floodgates--are all now available on Kindle and for the iPad.  With the daily flood of news stories on the growth of the ebook market, this can only be a good thing.

Second, my co-writer in the educational work, Faith, and I received word that an article of ours will be published in a prestigious literary journal.  It's called "Reading Geometry:  Text Options and Reading Activities," and it will appear in the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics' journal Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School.  One of the reading activities included in the article is based on an excerpt from Artifacts, so my work will get some nice exposure to people who might want to use it in their classrooms.

Third, I've been selected to do an artist's residency at The Studios of Key West.  (If I've told you this already, forgive me.)   I'll be going down in September to spend a week in a cottage called the Mango Treehouse, apparently because my bedroom is situated upstairs in such a way that I'll feel like I'm sleeping among the branches of the largest mango tree in Key West.  I have two deadlines coming up, so I'll be working like a slave in that magical treehouse, but Key West is a pretty wonderful place to experience self-imposed slavery.

And last, Faith and I have another article in a professional journal this summer.  Florida Readers Journal is a very scholarly publication, and our article is actually quite scholarly, but it does have a tongue-in-cheek quality that I think is what prompted Faith to list me as first author.  This is very generous of her, since she's the one with the PhD, but she said, "This one was your baby."  And it was.  It's called "Exploring Strange New Worlds:  Across-the-Curriculum Lessons from the Star Trek Franchise."

I have a picture to go with this last news item that is so appropriate for the topic and so ridiculous that I shall post it.  Live long and prosper!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A very literary rock star...

In my last post, I dissected the meter and thematic development of a pop song, and I felt positively schoolmarmish.  So I thought I'd dig up a picture of myself in my glasses, just so I could look the part.
The schoolmarm is in.

Today, we're still looking at the ways our modern troubadours are following in the footsteps of Homer and the Bard of Avon, and I've chosen one of my favorite lyricists, Sting.  Yes, sometimes he stomps onto the wrong side of that slender boundary between literary and pretentious, but the man has written some most elegant songs.  I'd rather risk being pretentious than spend all my time penning predictable tales in single-syllable words, and I imagine that Sting feels the same way.

As of last week, I am the mother of the a two-time National Junior Classical League mythology champion.  In her honor, I want to talk about The Police's hit, "Wrapped Around Your Finger," which draws from the mythological themes that she so loves.  I saw The Police perform this song in 1984, during their Synchronicity tour, and I continue to admire their work, particularly Sting's songwriting abilities.

This song is as classically inspired as they come, from the opening sentence:

You consider me the young apprentice
Caught between the Scylla and Charybdis.
Scylla and Charybdis were a pair of monsters who terrorized sailors back when the Greek gods walked the earth.  Scylla had a bunch of heads, bobbing on very long necks, and she would reach those heads out to a passing ship and snatch sailors right off the deck.  Charybdis took the form of a gargantual whirlpool that didn't bother with snatching individual sailors.  It just sucked the whole ship down into the depths.  Scylla and Charybdis make a famous appearance in The Oddysey.

Saying one is "caught between the Scylla and Charybis," is a whole lot prettier and fancier than saying that one is "caught between a rock and a hard place," but it means pretty much the same thing.  And what's our young apprentice doing in this precarious spot?  Why, I do believe that Sting has induced a state of dramatic tension in a mere 12 words.  We should all make it our goal to be equally economical.

Hypnotized by you if I should linger
Staring at the ring around your finger.

Until I started writing this post, I was certain that I understood this reference.  I was under the impression that the sorceress Circe wore a magic ring that she used to enchant Odysseus.  I can almost see the book where I read this, an adaptation of The Odyssey.  And I thought she used it to turn people to stone, which will come up again later in this post.  But I can find no evidence of these things on the internet and, as much as I love you people, I don't have time to re-read The Odyssey for you.  So I'm going to regard this line as referring to a generic sorceress's ring.  Or maybe she's not a sorceress.  Maybe she's a married woman who's got the young apprentice's attention.  This song has been out 27 years, but there are still people talking on the internet about this question.

I have only come here seeking knowledge,
Things they would not teach me of in college.

Sting has a way with feminine rhymes, doesn't he?

I can see the destiny you sold
turned into a shining band of gold.

Back to the sorceress/married woman question.

I'll be wrapped around your finger.
I'll be wrapped around your finger.

And the hook...repeated, of course.  Because it's the hook.  :)

Doesn't it oh-so-elegantly mirror that mysterious ring?

Mephistopheles is not your name,
But I know what you're up to just the same.

Faust sold his soul to Mephistopheles, so now we know exactly what's at stake.

I will listen hard to your tuition,
And you will see it come to its fruition.

Tuition/fruition.  Another feminine rhyme, maybe the prettiest ever...because the words work with the story.  "Tuition" and "fruition" would be the perfect words here if they didn't rhyme.  Never force the wrong word into your story, just because you want to use it.

As a schoolmarmish word-person, I think that "tuition" and "fruition" look pretty and sound pretty, and they even feel good in the mouth.

I'll be wrapped around your finger.
I'll be wrapped around your finger.

And the hook he just using an old saying here, or is he talking about a wedding ring, or is he talking about the spell this woman has over him?  The line works because we care about the answer.  We know nothing about this apprentice, except that he is trapped in a power struggle, but Sting tells his story in a way that drags us into the young man's viewpoint.  We're all wrapped around her finger...whoever she is.  Circe?  An unnamed modern woman?  We really don't care.

Devil and the deep blue sea behind me  

In a neat bit of songwriting legerdemain, this sentence fragment harks back to Faust's deal with Mephistopheles and to Charybdis the sea monster, and to the unnamed singer's struggles with those two beings.

Vanish in the air you'll never find me.

And the apprentice has harnessed his magic!  Don't you want to applaud?

I will turn your face to alabaster,
Then you'll find your servant is your master,

It bugs me that I remember a story of a sorceress who used a ring to turn men to stone, but I can't find a reference for that story.  If anybody knows it, please write me.  But even without it, this couplet is simply awesome. It functions like the final couplet in a Shakespearean sonnet, requiring the observer to re-evaluate everything that came before in light of the surprise now being revealed.

The multisyllabic feminine rhyme, master/alabaster, emphasizes two important words.  "Master" is obviously a central image to the power struggle being detailed in this song.  And turning someone's face to alabaster, knowing that alabaster is a stone and is also synonym for "white," opens the mythology of the song to interpretation.  Is the student's master (or mistress) white-faced in shock, or was he or she actually turned to stone?  In this mythic land, either are possible.  Poseidon turned Odysseus' ship to stone, and Medusa's glance could turn anyone to rock.  I've always thought that the choice to use "alabaster" in this context was simple genius.

And you'll be wrapped around my finger.
I'll be wrapped around your finger.
You'll be wrapped around my finger.
I'll be wrapped around your finger.....

And the turn keeps turning.  Who really is the master in this relationship?  And does it matter when the two people are so inextricably bound?  This power struggle is going to continue as long as both parties are still breathing.  And it's entirely possible that this song will  have fans as long as human beings can see themselves in that struggle.

Keep on rocking...
Mary Anna

Monday, August 9, 2010

Every time that I look in the mirror...

As I promised yesterday, we're going to take a good look at some timeless words.  No, they're not excerpted from a novel or a short story.  No, they're not even fiction, though I do think they tell a story.  They're song lyrics, that special kind of poetry that is consumed by the masses because it comes wrapped in ear-pleasing, visceral rock-and-roll.

I had a nostalgic good time on Saturday night, enjoying an excellent Aerosmith concert in the company of my 14-year-old daughter, who appeared to be enjoying it as much as I was.  See--don't we look happy?

This, ladies and gentlemen, is art that crosses generations.  (Pop art, it's true.  We're not talking Mozart here.  But I write popular fiction, and I happen to believe that popular art that strikes a chord with millions of people is probably saying something important about the human condition.  Steven Tyler just makes his social commentary in a much raunchier way than, say, Maya Angelou.)

I remember hearing "Dream On" on the radio when it was first released.  When Aerosmith launched into that song, I heard thousands of people squeal like the little girl I was then, and I thought "We wordsmiths can learn some things from Aerosmith.  I'm gonna deconstruct that song."  I tell my fiction writing students that they should write poetry, just to practice the precise and practical use of words.  Well, when you write a pop song, you know you're gonna have to repeat that hook many, many you have to be even more selective about the words you do use.  Let's look at the words Steven Tyler chose in boldface.  I'll comment in regular old Times New Roman.

Every time that I look in the mirror,
All these lines on my face getting clearer.

I thought this was a heroic couplet, but alas, heroic couplets have five iambic feet.  Rock-and-roll lends itself more to four feet--tetrameter--and those look more like trochees than iambs, so let's call it trochaic tetrameter.  Shakespeare used that meter.  So did Edna St. Vincent Millay.  So I guess it's worthy.

Whatever you call it, I think the back-to-back rhyme of a couplet has a strong, definite sound.  And the feminine rhyme scheme--two rhymed syllables instead of just one--makes it even stronger.  It can be risky.  It can sound like a bad limerick.  (There once was a man from Nantucket/ who...oh, never mind.)

I think it works here.  And these opening lines strike right at the heart of anyone who has ever contemplated age and mortality.  (This is fairly amazing, considering that Tyler was what...25?...when he wrote those words.)  But it's a perfect opening for a song that's aiming a little higher than the average blues song that begins, "I woke up this morning, a day older than I was yesterdaa-aa-ayyy...)

The past is gone.
It went by like dusk to dawn.
Isn't that the way?
Everybody's got their dues in life to pay. 

And again, "Everybody's got their dues in life to pay," rubs our face in the hard parts of life, but it does the job with a little more style than "Nobody knows the trouble I've seen."  And it differs a bit from the blues, in that there is a whiff of hope here.  Will things get better after we get those dues paid?

Yeah, I know nobody knows,
Where it comes and where it goes.
I know everybody sins.
You got to lose to know-oh how to win.

And again, we're dealing in sin here, and sin leads to death, and well, there's the mortality thing again.  But maybe we've got a fighting chance to win while we're still kicking.

Half my life's in books' written pages, 

So's mine, Steve.  :)
Live and learn from fools and from sages.
You know it's true.
All these things come back to you. 

Dusk/dawn, lose/win, fools/sages...are we getting it yet?  What goes around comes around and what you give will come back to you.

Sing with me, sing for the year.
Sing for the laughter, an' sing for the tear.
Sing it with me, if it's just for today.
Maybe tomorrow, the good Lord will take you away...

Laughter/tear, today/tomorrow...are we getting it yet?  The good Lord has stuck us with this mortality thing, but we're doing our best to deal with it.  And maybe it's just me, but this song sounds like it's written about a man who is utterly depressed--at rock-bottom, actually--but a man who believes he can turn it around.

Dream on, dream on, dream on,
Dream until your dreams come true.

And this is where he turns it around.  This song's hook takes the jaded teenager's response to a cheerful statement, "Dream on...sigh..." and removes the irony.  It seriously asks us to contemplate that dreams come true.  Works for me.  And because it's a radio-ready song, the hook gets repeated several (several!) times, turning it into a rock anthem.

So there you go.  Look at your own writing and see if you can use any of this wisdom:  Simple words.  Strong rhythms. Timeless longings.  And the rebellious, shaken-fist refusal to succumb to depression.  We could all do worse, don't you think?

Dream on, dream on, dream on,
Dream until your dreams come true. 

Rock on!
Mary Anna

Sunday, August 8, 2010

From TV to rock-and-roll...

Today's my day to blog over at The LadyKillers, and it was a tough assignment.  They wanted me to write about TV crime shows, and I just don't watch a lot of TV.  However, I managed to wrestle the topic into submission by morphing it into a writing tip.  So if you're one of my writing tip collectors, you're going to have to hit that LadyKillers link and go over there to see it.

Tomorrow, I'm planning to make you all jealous by telling you how my daughter and I heard Aerosmith play a fabulous concert last night.  I'll make your misery worse by posting a photo of us being rocker chicks.  Then I think I'm going to deconstruct the lyrics to "Dream On" and tell you why they work.  (Weeks ago, one of my writing tips was to learn from the masters.  Well, a song that can still make a stadium full of humans squeal like little girls was probably written by a master, doncha think?)

I have not written this post yet, so I'm tiptoeing way out on a limb.  What if I find I have nothing to say about "Dream On"?

Oh, be serious.  I am a novelist.  I can find something to say about laundry lint, but I'd rather talk about Aerosmith.  Check back tomorrow, when we'll all know what I decided to say.

Mary Anna

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Just a Little Gift from Me to You: Writing Tips from the Pros

I spent most of last week in the company of people who make their living as writers--the faculty of the Anhinga Writers Studio Summer Workshops. I was the conference's faculty coordinator, so I picked these people and you'd better believe I picked their brains when I had the chance.

Here are some gleanings of wisdom from the best. Use them. Incorporate them into your work life. You can thank me later.  Better yet. Next time you see me, bring me chocolate. :)

A Poet's Advice on Revision...Which is Pretty Applicable to Non-poets, As Well
I think sometimes students who workshop a lot get the idea that revision is synonymous with streamlining, and so all you have to do to get your writing to shine is cut the fat. Cutting when possible is definitely critical. But there's more to revision than that. Sometimes a poem is missing information, or has no hook. Sometimes it needs to change direction because the way you began isn't the way it wants to go as it evolves.
- Lola Haskins, NEA Fellow,

Is Success as a Writer Any Different From Success In Any Other Field?  Probably Not...
Question:  How do you make a bunch of money with your book?
Answer:   Don't focus on making a bunch of money with your book. Start with a fundamental respect for your potential readers.
- Peter Bowerman, Author of The Well-Fed Writer and The Well-Fed Self-Publisher: How to Turn One Book Into a Full-Time Living,

How Do Agents Do What They Do?
While the author is revising the project and rounding up supplementary materials, the agent is busy too. She’s making her preliminary “hit list” of likely editors, often in consultation with her colleagues in the agency. She’s also writing her own cover letter for the project – a pitch not unlike an author’s initial query. She may even be doing a bit of pre-selling, dropping tantalizing hints about the book at lunches or in chance telephone conversations with editors. Finally, the agent has to decide the best time to schedule the submission, ideally a week when editors won’t be out of town because of sales conferences, book fairs, or holidays.
- Anne Hawkins, Senior Literary Agent with John Hawkins and Associates,

Writing Good Characters is Like Dating, Sorta...
Think of your main characters and your readers as developing a relationship in your manuscript. When you first introduce your character, think of this as a first date with the reader. (If the reader isn’t intrigued, there won’t be a second date; that is, the reader won’t keep reading if she or he is bored, thinks “yeah, so what?” or is not otherwise engage with the characters.) But, if you hook the reader on that first date, then as the story evolves, the relationship between the characters and the readers similarly evolves. If you are writing a series, then your characters and your readers form a kind of marriage—or long-term relationship. And, as in a real relationship, what the characters say, think, and do over time (the duration of the book or books) reveals more and more about who they really are and what they are capable of doing. In order to keep your characters/readers’ relationship healthy, you must offer the readers some of the same things a healthy real-life relationship offers — interest, intrigue, respect, and pleasure.
- Claire Matturro, awardwinning author of Florida-based legal mysteries featuring the sassy Lily 
  Belle Rose Cleary,

Monday, August 2, 2010

A funny story...

One of our students at the Anhinga Writers Studio Summer Workshops told me a hilarious story, and I told her she should write it down.  It turned out that she already had, so she forwarded it to me today.  I enjoyed it so much that I thought I'd share it with you.  Enjoy...
The Double Surprise
by DJ Towles

During the year Mr. Hayden and I talked business over the phone, we had become quite relaxed with each other. Sharing tidbits from our personal lives resulted in our discovery that we would both be in DC's Georgetown section on the same day the following week. It seemed natural to take the opportunity to meet for lunch, and, as Mr. Hayden said, "put faces to the names." Since my schedule was the iffier of the two, the plan was for the reservation at the Four Georges to be for one o'clock in Mr. Hayden's name. I would join him as soon as I finished my client calls.
My preparations were intensive, extensive, and most of all, expensive. No suit in my closet seemed fashionable enough. No dress seemed to work. No shoes seemed stylish enough for this lunch, this meeting which was just to "put faces to the names." Hundreds of dollars spent, not just on clothes, but on a salon coiffure for hair normally treated to a shampoo in the shower and a half-hearted finger fluff during the air dry process. A manicure. I hadn't had a manicure in years and years. The pedicure was the most ridiculous decision. A pedicure for toes that were going to be hidden in shoes, new, fashionable shoes, under the table while we're having the business lunch to "put faces to the names." Why am I so nervous? It isn't even a date. Well, maybe it seems like a date to me, but I'll bet he doesn't think it's a date. No. He probably really means it's just to "put faces to the names." 
For all my attempts to calm myself when I walked into the Four Georges I was a nervous wreck, a well dressed, coiffed, manicured, pedicured nervous wreck, but still, a nervous wreck. I had rushed through my morning appointments and arrived only minutes after one o'clock.
The maitre d' ushered me to a banquette table set for four.  There was only one occupant, a very attractive lady. No Mr. Hayden. Perhaps he had gone to the mens' room. Was this his secretary? His wife?
I extended my hand to the raven-haired lady in a typical business greeting.  "Hello, I'm DJ Towle."
Was there just a moment of hesitation before she clasped my hand in greeting?
She flashed a smile and in the husky/sexy voice I knew so well from the phone said, "Hello, DJ, I'm Elizabeth Terhayden. I'm so glad to meet you." 
Elizabeth Terhayden. Miss Terhayen. Not Mr. Hayden. Miss Terhayden!
While sipping coffee after our meal,  my need to confess could no longer be contained. I revealed to my new girlfriend that she was supposed to have been my new boyfriend. She hooted with laughter. "You were my new prospect, too. I even bought a this dress."
"I bought this suit."
 "I had my nails done."
"My hair, as well!"
The Four Georges is a pretty upscale place with a quiet, reserved atmosphere. The rest of the diners must have thought the two of us had consumed  too much juice of the grape. The heck with what they thought. We two husky voiced young professional women with names that could be male or female, each gussied up to meet a business associate with hopes of establishing a long term heterosexual relationship, hooted with laughter at the double surprise.
It's been decades and decades since Liz and I did business together. We don't even keep in touch like we once did. However, when either one of us retells this story we always let the other one know. I'll end this now. It's time to e-mail my friend, Miss Terhayden.