By Katy Munger | October 16, 2016 at 08:56 PM EDT | No Comments
Yesterday, in the midst of our acrimonious national election and the seeming collapse of civility everywhere, I sought refuge in the dignity and community of the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame 2016 induction ceremony. Over a hundred people gathered on a perfect autumn afternoon at the Weymouth Center for the Arts & Humanities in Southern Pines to watch as Clyde Edgerton, Margaret Maron, and the great Carl Sandburg were all inducted.
Leaders from North Carolina's arts community were there, along with columnist J. Peder Zane, the inimitable Bland Simpson, and North Carolina Poet Laureate Shelby Stephenson, among others. The common theme? How the arts brings us together. And, truly, yesterday they did. Political differences were forgotten. Our diverse backgrounds and lives bound us rather than keeping us apart. We were all in it together, as North Carolinians. It was a good feeling, one I had missed.
We are lucky to live in this beautiful state, a state that treasures its writers and its people, in all of our diverse glory. I hope when this election is over, we can get back to being the North Carolina we deserve to be and can be again, one linked by our love for the state we live in, a respect for those who are different from us, and a focus on how we are all connected beneath those differences.
Thank you to everyone at Weymouth and the Literary Hall of fame who made today possible and reminded me that life is about being together. For those of you who could not be with us, I thought you might enjoy these photos, courtesy of Bob Witchger and author Kaye Wilkinson Barley:
By Katy Munger | October 03, 2016 at 09:04 AM EDT | 2 comments
Sometime over the past two weeks, my staring contest with the unfinished books piling up on my computer’s hard drive ended. It started quietly enough. I woke up unexpectedly at 5:00 AM one morning, wide awake as a lemur, head swimming in ideas, and figured I may as well take a peek at the outline for one of those works-in-progress. Two hours later, a new outline had emerged, I felt blissfully balanced, and I was heading for the shower to start my day.
That morning was followed by a few evenings of grabbing a couple hours here and there… more mornings rising early to dip my toe into the plot that was emerging, only to get swept away in hours of concentration, and even a few glorious weekend afternoons sitting outside in the cool and working on my book.
The barriers to commitment fell away quietly with no resistance, stone by stone, toppled by the subtle but unstoppable force of my love for writing, which is surely written in the ladders of my DNA. It was an unexpected victory. I had lived with the uncertainty of what to do with myself as a writer for a while now, immersing myself in workshops, meeting other writers, giving myself the gift of talking and thinking about writing rather than forcing myself to sit down and actually write.
It was the best thing I could have ever done.
Somewhere along the way, in the midst of talking to, literally, hundreds of writers this year as Piedmont Laureate, I came to understand that there is a self-defeating dilemma inherent in the world of published writers: writers write because they want to be heard, because they have something to say, because they have a deep need to put their stamp on the world. Publishers, on the other hand, are looking for books that can ride the coattails of the bestsellers that have gone before them. They want writers to write as close as possible to everyone else, or at least to everyone else on the bestseller lists. So it’s all too easy to begin your writing career with a unique voice and something to say, only to find yourself pretending to be everyone else a few books down the road.
I think that was what bothered me the most about my evolving writing career: giving up the search to find myself and my voice along the way. I think that dilemma is what caused me to give it a rest. So I thank all of the writers I’ve met over the past nine months for bringing me to this realization and helping me to understand that I need to make a choice. You have helped me crystallize why I write and what I want to write. You have helped me cull out a plethora of ideas and settle on just the right one to give voice to my worldview. You have helped me, perhaps for the first time in 25 years of writing, to get my priorities straight.
Once I realized I wanted to write a book that had my voice in it, the plot came pouring forth. Once the plot came pouring forth, my imagination embraced it and drew me into it, causing me to wake up early in the morning to live in that space, inspiring me to carve out hours to spend with my new characters. I now live in two worlds, the real world and the world I am creating in my head. This is where I like to be. Straddling two worlds in that besotted, Twin Peaks slightly off-kilter way of writers who are heeding the siren call of their own imaginations.
It feels good to be home and to be writing again. If you’re in the same boat I was in earlier this year, here’s my advice to you: once you remember why you write, what you write will follow.
By Katy Munger | September 20, 2016 at 01:31 AM EDT | No Comments
I am such a nice person. No, really. Ask anyone who knows me. I’m maniacally cheerful (still love you for that one, Andy), relentlessly optimistic, incapable of holding a grudge, hopelessly forgiving of other people’s bad behavior, and pretty much swimming in natural endorphins. My former husband nicknamed me “Skip” because my prevailing mood, according to him, could best be described as, “Let’s hold hands and skip!”
Of course, as any mystery reader knows: looks can be deceiving.
You see, while I walk on the sunny side of the street in real life, it’s only because I have found a way to channel my less worthy impulses into my books. Like all mystery writers (at least the ones who admit it) I can afford to reserve my revenge for the page, where I channel my need to exact fictional karma into motivation to sit down and write. Think of it as a writer's character-driven catalytic converter.
This is not out of any personal need for revenge, mind you. Like Fern in Charlotte’s Web, I was born with a keen sense of injustice in the world. Or rather, it probably developed soon after I was born due to the fact that I had five siblings. When you are one of six kids, believe me, the injustice of someone else getting a bigger piece of pie than you or hogging the best seat in the car all the way from Virginia to Maine starts to seem pretty damn important. I still have the scars from scratch marks on my arm to prove it. This hyper sense of fairness followed me into adulthood. I try to treat other people with kindness and respect, but there is nothing I like less than people who break the rules and take advantage of other people's good intentions for their personal gain. So I notice when other people behave badly — and I make it my job to even the score, if only a little.
By now, it’s second nature to me. When I run across someone who deserves a literary slap upside of the head, I catalog their appearance and personal habits, then preserve them in my brain until I need a character deserving of either murder or incarceration. They go into my mental Rolodex under “V” (which stands for either victim or villain) and are forgotten until I need them for a plot. It's my own personal waiting list of unlikeable characters, populated by people who have committed my least favorite transgressions. For example, I can’t stand rude people and I don’t trust liars — but I absolutely loathe mean people… control freaks and phonies… not to mention self-entitled twits and self-righteous bullies … and, most of all, narcissists. I’ve written entire books about making sure narcissists get what’s coming to them and I’m still not done examining the fascinating question of why some people feel so entitled to suck the life out of others.
My fictional hit list has served me well. It gives my characters life and my plots more juice. Most of all, it keeps me writing. And it’s probably a big reason why people keep reading my mysteries. Bullies often get away with intimidating people in real life. People who cheat and stomp on the rights of others can keep on stomping for decades. And narcissists rarely get what’s coming to them in real life. But in the pages of a mystery, especially my mysteries, karmic justice is always served. It feels good when the cheater gets caught. It’s satisfying when a bully has his power taken away. And who doesn't delight when a spoiled, self-entitled jerk is finally thwarted for good? Call it the world the way it should be. A world where the golden rule is more of a double-edged sword, where people get what they deserve instead of getting away with murder.
Is this fair play? You bet. People who can’t play nice in this world deserve my literary wrath, at the very least. Is it emotionally healthy? Probably. It’s certainly healthier than keeping it bottled up inside. Most of all, though, it’s fun—so long as you remember that literary revenge is a dish best written cold. You don’t want to hold on to your anger, you want to transform it into the forces of good.
By the way, I take requests. So feel free to tell me about someone who deserves a little literary payback in the Comments section below and I’ll see what I can do. Because, you know: I am such a nice person.
By Katy Munger | September 05, 2016 at 02:03 PM EDT | No Comments
Whenever I give workshops, I often talk about how the growth of television and motion pictures has affected the medium of the written word. Like it or not, the popularity of more visual mediums has changed both the way authors write and the way that reader's perceive that writing. While I often caution writers about the bad habits that come with thinking primarily visually when writing (see The 10 Worst Habits of Today's Writers), it may be more useful to some of you to provide a positive example of a popular author who is successfully avoiding the pitfalls of visual writing while still taking advantage of some of the expectations and habits that television and movies have ingrained in today’s readers: JK Rowling. Although, in this case, I am not talking about her famed Harry Potter series. If you are a writer and you want to take a look at what a well-written novel for modern audiences can achieve, pick up Rowling'sThe Casual Vacancy.
Is it the perfect modern novel? No, and its mixed reviews make that clear. I myself kept reading, with some bemusement, as she slid inadvertently into a true omniscient viewpoint in one chapter and then had to scramble to find a graceful way out, given she was juggling dozens of characters. But it is a great book for other writers to read, with an eye out for recognizing how authors need to communicate to readers whose storytelling preferences have been shaped by more visual media. Rowling has taken popular story expectations (a plot full of surprises, somewhat iconic characters, and a hero’s myth structure) and she has met them all. But at the same time, Rowling also uses the written medium and her own narrative voice to provide depth that more visual mediums lack, especially when it comes to the characters. She has then, rather fearlessly —given the world’s expectations for her at the time she wrote The Casual Vacancy — overlaid the story with her own personal style and values, creating a book that most definitely has her in it. Instead of imitating other writers or attempting to imitate television or movies, she has created a book that only she could have written and one that is deeply moving in many respects as a result.
The story itself is relatively simple.The equivalent of an American city councilman dies, pitching a small English village into chaos, primarily due to differing opinions on whether a nearby low income housing project should remain part of the village or be forced on the metropolitan area that built it in the first place. Whoever takes the dead man’s place on the local council will likely sway that decision. As various village inhabitants cope with the sudden death of their well-liked neighbor, more than a few begin to view the vacant seat as a way to fulfill noble and not-so-noble dreams of their own.
The book tracks how a single death can change the undercurrents of a small town, including how people view themselves and how they treat others. The political plot takes a backseat to very real and evocative portraits of people that I suspect every home town includes: the power hungry local businessman who overestimates his importance and joins his wife in kowtowing to minor royalty… the aging sexpot a bit at sea as her sense of self starts to fade with her appeal… unhappy marriage partners… sturdy, overlooked wives who hold the lives of everyone they love together… terrifying domestic abusers… lonely, career-driven women confronted with a dismal dating field… drug-addicted citizens of the welfare state who may or may not mean well, but who always slide back into poverty’s quagmire… and a handful of very unlikely and ultimately very brave teenage heroes.
In fact, it is Rowling's ability to paint vivid portraits of the town's teenagers that connect this book the most to her prior Harry Potter work. You meet the smartass class clown, whose wit and sharp tongue make him more of a bully than his more brutish classmates. You meet the less attractive daughter of high achieving parents whose perfect older sister and unfortunate appearance make her the victim of that bullying, as well as her family's own disappointments. You meet a loyal son doing his best to avoid triggering the vicious temper of a violent father and who tries to find escape in the ecstasy of possible love. And you meet a tough-as-nails teenage girl whom the deceased nearly rescued from a legacy of poverty and who still clings to the moments of high self-esteem his kindness gave her. Rowling makes all of these characters real in a way no script could ever hope to, and especially shows the relationships between children and their parents in heartbreaking detail. This is an author with endless empathy, a very long memory, and remarkable powers of observation.
These relatable characters form the book's core and stand out as its greatest strength. As she takes turns delving into their lives, including their innermost thoughts, she reveals nuances to their personalities that make them vividly real to the reader and evoke personal memories. Who among us has not suffered the panic of being pinned in the judgment of others? Or known the man who could never quite make a decision about his life, thus dooming him to drift along, unsatisfied and envious of those who have made clear-cut choices? Rowling manages to make them all real, yet still leaves room for the reader to fill in the blanks. She tells us enough but not too much. She conveys a world of regret and longing by describing a single gesture or unuttered phrase, and by choosing those moments carefully: they are moments we can all remember.
Her effectiveness as an author goes well beyond this character-based approach to telling her narrative. Her technical skills as a writer are evident. She achieves a beautiful balance between description, action, and emotional development, and, without being obvious, she has a very strong viewpoint of her own at the core of the story. J.K. Rowling is, as always, fascinated by how being born to a specific station shapes a person’s destiny. In this book, the author definitely has something to say on the subject and she lets the characters she has so vividly created deliver her message for her with extremely powerful results. No one is all good; no one is all bad. That unexpected choice alone forces the reader to stop and confront their own prejudices. It is a very modern plot, but it is never overtold. It shows how a novel can break new ground and speak to audiences that may bring unrealistic expectations about both what a book can do and how problems are solved in the real world.
All of which means, even if you are wary of reading a non-Harry Potter book of Rowling's, if you are a writer searching for the answer to key questions like, "How can I put myself in my book?" "How do I achieve that balance between showing and telling?" then I would recommend that you check out The Casual Vacancy. Reading it for yourself can tell you more about Rowling's mastery of modern narrative techniques than I ever could.
By Katy Munger | August 22, 2016 at 08:05 AM EDT | No Comments
The written word asks more of an audience then visual mediums. All authors must make fundamental choices when creating a narrative: how much is just enough? What words will create the time and place I want to evoke—while still inviting readers to use their imaginations? To use the medium of written work correctly, we must leave space for the reader in what we write: readers who bring their own contributions to a book are more invested in its outcome.
Unfortunately, finding the right way to frame your story, and sticking to your guns about it, is not always an easy task. Primarily because we now live in a time when virtually every writer has been raised on television and motion pictures. This has fundamentally changed the way we approach and create the written word as well as the way our brains work while we are writing. For most of us, when we are in deep in a story, our imaginations are unfolding a sort of mini-movie in our heads, providing a visual track we describe as we write our books. But, unfortunately, by rooting our narrative in a primarily visual base, we leave ourselves open to bad habits that can limit what we ask the reader to bring to our writing. Since the last thing you want as a writer is a disengaged reader, it’s important to recognize these writing tendencies and root them out. To help, here is a list of the bad habits I have noticed in myself and in other writers, many of them identified during my time as a book reviewer for the Washington Post.
Too many adjectives and adverbs
This is the number one bad habit of writers today. In our desire to make that mini-movie in our head more real, we put way too much page space into adjectives and adverbs. The problem with this approach is that, not only do we drag our stories down with bloated word counts, we rob the reader of the chance to bring their own life experiences and imaginations to the story. We risk describing the appearance of a romantic lead, for example, so thoroughly that the reader has no chance to bring their own desires to how that protagonist looks. Taming this habit requires time and discipline. When I finish a chapter, I go back through it and cut out at least 25% of the adjectives and adverbs I have used (although my aim is to cut 1/3). If you are a writer, I highly recommend you do the same. You want enough adjectives and adverbs for your book to feel alive, but not so many that you dictate the experience for your readers.
Minute-by-minute action descriptions (the film reel effect)
Much like the overuse of adjectives and adverbs, many writers fall into the trap of describing every move a protagonist makes to get them from Point A to Point B. Readers don't need to know that your protagonist woke up, got out of bed, brushed their teeth, took a shower, and made coffee… See what I mean? I almost fell asleep just writing that sentence. Identify the essential actions and emotional epiphanies of every chapter before you begin to write then concentrate on those moments. It may feel a little clunky at first, but you are doing your pacing a favor and keeping readers engaged when you learn to cut out the mundane.
Remember that you are a writer, not a movie camera. You must make deliberate choices about the viewpoint you use in your book, and if you choose to mix your viewpoints, then you must be very, very careful to stick to a single viewpoint within a chapter. Otherwise, you risk confusing your reader and muddying your story.
I find that many writers today use a limited omniscient approach by adopting the viewpoint of a single character within each chapter, but using the viewpoints of different characters across the arc of an entire book. Done well, I think this can give a story more depth. However, be careful how you use this technique, balance the use of multiple viewpoints, and, again, never mix viewpoints within a single chapter. In fact, my basic advice is this: mix viewpoints at your own peril. Most editors hate this technique because many readers do. It's a tough act to pull off, even when you're Barbara Kingsolver (Poisonwood Bible) or JK Rowling (A Casual Vacancy), so it's not one I recommend until you are experienced enough to be extremely confident in both your characters and your approach. I could show you my own (unpublished) book as an example.
If you find you have chosen a viewpoint that limits your ability to develop the story, consider taking on the voice of the different, more universal character… or divide your books into sections, each section devoted to a different character… or take the plunge and choose the omniscient viewpoint. But whatever you do, choose deliberately and stick to your guns. Slippery viewpoint is jarring to the reader who has embraced your book and the narrator's voice.
Most people today fit time for writing into their otherwise busy lives; few of us have hours a day to devote to working on our books. Because we must write in what amounts to fits and starts, I think that many of us end up with uneven pacing. That's because, each time we write, we are like a car in first gear gradually revving up to go faster. This can make for very uneven pacing in a book, and its risks losing readers to boredom or leaving them behind when you rush. You can help mitigate this habit by working off a precise plot outline that guides you each time you sit down to write. If, on the other hand, you write organically and don't like to be hemmed in by an outline, then be sure to put your book down for a long enough period of time to clear your head, then go back to it with one and only one goal in mind: would a reader brand new to your plot feel comfortable with your pacing and the way your plot unfolds?
Slow passages/not enough reason to keep turning the pages
Today’s readers have also been raised on television and motion pictures. Because of this, they bring certain expectations to the medium of the written word and you would be wise to meet those expectations if you want to build a following for your writing. One of those expectations is the idea that readers like to be kept in suspense and surprised. Without resorting to contrived plotting, it can help to identify the fundamental challenge of every chapter in your book and see what you can do to add smaller pockets of suspense to what should be an enthralling overall plot.
Just because a movie has extras in it, doesn't mean your book has to. If you have to list your characters and describe them at the front of your book, then either you have too many characters or you have not devoted enough time to making them memorable. There's nothing wrong with a minor character orbiting in and out of the book to add color or, perhaps, provide a clue or crucial plot transition. But, in general, if a character does not play a distinct role in your book, think twice about making them a part of it. It's hard for readers to keep track of the secondary characters and it can lessen their enjoyment if they have to keep stopping to flip the pages backwards to figure out who the characters are. Just ask anyone who has read the fourth book in the Game of Thrones series.
Character names that are too similar
This bad habit, I think, comes from the peculiar tendency of our brains to store memories in the same place as specific emotions. As a result, many writers will give their characters names that are so similar it is tough for readers to keep them apart, especially at the beginning of a book. I think it's a good idea to even avoid naming characters of the same gender with names that begin with the same letter. You may have two friends named Cathy and Caitlin, and understand that they are completely different, but your readers are going to have trouble keeping them apart, especially before you have had time to make each character unique. To combat this habit, I recommend choosing all names before you even begin writing your book, and even creating a short back story for each character. This helps you choose exactly the right name for the type of character can have in mind and allows you to consciously adjust your characters’ names when they slide too close together.
Don't be that desperate writer who has paid so little attention to how your plot unfolds that you end up throwing the equivalent of a Hail Mary pass to one of your characters. Unless you give the reader a reason why someone is behaving out of character, don't do it. Part of creating authentic characters in your book is establishing the boundaries of their psyches and actions. When you violate those parameters, you are impugning the integrity of your writer’s voice. Again, I recommend a separate reading of your draft solely so that you can ask yourself the question, "Would the character I have created act that way?" about every major action they take. Characters who suddenly behave differently are jarring to the reader and disrupt the imaginary world you have created.
Too much nuance
It kills me to write this but we all need to face it: nuance is dead. We live in a world where people are instantly labeled as heroes and villains, and there is little middle ground in between. If you are writing for that last, blessed slice of humans who treasure nuance and love creeping up on a realization, then have at it. But if you are writing for a larger market, always err on the side of the obvious. You'd be amazed how often your obvious is interpreted as someone else's nuance. If you've got a sleazy character, don't be shy about showing their sleaziness. If someone is secretly unhappy, make sure it's not-so-secret to the reader. People today are used to being spoonfed their emotions. They are used to being told how to react and they are definitely used to having their emotions manipulated. You will risk losing some of the perceived depth of your book if you decide to be too subtle.
Breaking the “rules” of your genre
Very few fiction writers today write outside of a specific genre. Whether it's crime, romance, speculative, women's, historical or what have you — marketing considerations put virtually every fictional piece in a box. These boxes come with expectations. Every genre has its informal rules. You don't solve a mystery by bringing a character in at the last moment; that's cheating. You don't end a romance novel by having the two protagonists engage in a roaring fight and break up. That’s just plain mean. In other words, readers bring certain expectations to the genres they love and it's not a wise idea to disappoint them. Learn the rules of your genre by reading in your genre. Pay attention to the common structures and plot devices employed across your genre. Follow them. Sure, you can be different — I, personally, always applaud the different — but know that you are being different at your own peril and that it will decrease the likelihood that you will be published by a mainstream house if you break your genre’s rules.
As always, the advice above comes with a caveat: take what you feel, in your gut, might be useful to you in your writing and discard the rest. You are the captain of your own ship. But first take the time to step back and at least evaluate whether you have any tendencies toward the bad habits listed above. Read your work deliberately to look for them in your drafts as you work. If you find yourself engaging in any of them, rip out the offending passages as if you were weeding a garden. Your book or story will be the better for it.
By Katy Munger | August 08, 2016 at 07:51 AM EDT | 1 comment
As the entire reading world obsesses about the new Harry Potter — certainly, the first time in my life time that so many people have cared about reading the script to a play — my thoughts have turned to Gone With the Wind, not only because it was the blockbuster of its day but also because, when you think about it, it is a sort of sorting hat for literary tastes. I have found that how you react to the characters in GWTW can not only tell you a lot about yourself, it can also tell you a lot about the direction you should go in as a writer or reader. I have cleverly tested my theory in bars across America as I meet with other book lovers and I am pretty sure I am on to something.
Let's start with the obvious: Scarlet. Here is a narcissistic, spoiled woman-child who toys with peoples’ emotions, treats her maid abominably, is equally dismissive to her own mother, manipulates her father in an über-Freudian fashion, obsesses over the one man she can't have, and blithely steals her sister’s lifelong suitor for a little bit of change in the bank. Certainly, Scarlett had strength and determination. And held her family (if not the entire county) together after the Civil War. If her strength and quest for romantic fulfillment is what captivates you about her, then chances are good you are either a romance writer or into women's fiction. On the other hand, if all you can see when you think of Scarlet O'Hara is a long line of victims toppled behind her like bowling pins and cannot help but think that she would have made an excellent serial killer, chances are good you are into crime fiction. As for myself, I can only tolerate Scarlet by pretending that we finally find out what happens to her in Streetcar Named Desire, when Blanche DuBois is led away in a coquettish delusional state by a version of the proverbial men in white coats.
Ashley Wilkes is another good litmus test. It is safe to say that all southern women fall into one of two categories: those that swoon over Ashley Wilkes, and those who prefer Rhett Butler. For me, the choice is easy. Sure, Ashley Wilkes is genteel and noble on the surface, but he doesn't have the cajones to tell Scarlet to leave him alone, he sits around moping an awful lot for a man in the middle of a major war, he's atrociously unhelpful when Melanie is dying, and he even gives in and kisses Scarlet when he knows that he may as well have been waving the starting flag in front of Dale Earnhardt. In short, he is too indecisive and weak for my taste, and though I loved him when I was very young and found most men loud and scary, I have little patience with him now that I am older. I prefer the Rhett Butlers of the world, though I have no illusions as to their essential character. At least Rhett was honest about who he was, recognized quickly that his love for Scarlet was toxic, stood by Belle Watling with an admirable loyalty, and could get the job done. If you are an Ashley Wilkes fan instead, I am going to go out on a limb and suggest that you are a big fan of either young adult fiction or most men active in progressive politics. We Rhett fans will be over here in the corner enjoying our thrillers and spy novels.
Melanie is another character who inspires revealing reactions by readers. She is generous and selfless, impossibly good, and thus clearly doomed from the start. How could anyone not like Melanie? But there is a difference between admiring her and wanting to be around her for too long. Melanie makes you feel inadequate. Melanie makes you feel mean and small. Melanie would make for an awesome character in a mystery book. Think about it: what if someone was actually lousy enough to whack her? Who could do such a thing? Now that would be an interesting puzzle. Melanie represents the essential good in human beings, and as such probably appeals to readers of all genres. After all, doesn't every book explore whether people are essentially selfless or self-serving at their core?
Other lesser characters, and how you react to them, can reveal even more about your reading and writing tastes, if not your soul. Let's take the Tarleton twins. They're like a pair of dumb Labrador retrievers, tongues hanging out as they pant around Scarlet, fetching her barbecue and vying for a pat on the head and “good boy” from her. You just know that they will be the first to charge into the fray, without stopping to think whether it's the smart move or not. You know they won't make it halfway to Fort Sumter, much less Gettysburg. This cynical reaction to the Tarleton twins should have told me, early on, that I needed to go into crime fiction. If you, too, saw it coming but, unlike me, found it a little noble, may I recommend any book by Stephen Ambrose?(Although Stephen Ambrose is one of my all-time favorite authors, just for the record.)
Meanwhile, Aunt Pittypat is the litmus test for whether you are a fan of southern women's fiction or not. If you find her iconic and endearing, please do not read Flannery O'Connor anytime soon. If you mostly want to slap her and hand her off to the Symbionese Liberation Army, welcome to the dark side. Start with Stephen King and go from there.
My reaction to the death of Bonnie Blue Butler was another clue that I like to avoid the sunny side of the street. The very fact that I could entertain a smidgen of relief that the pony did her in clearly labels me both a horrible person and a crime writer. (Although in my defense, the young actress who plays her in the movie version of GWTW is so abominably coiffed and overly cute in that saccharine 30’s kind of way that I think probably everyone should get a pass on cheering for the pony.)
Finally, we must discuss the characters of Mammy and Prissy, the O’Hara family’s house servants (and by that, the ending credits designer surely meant SLAVES). I never understood the need for comic relief in an otherwise utterly serious tale — I almost threw tomatoes during Keeper of the House in Les Miserables — and I certainly do not understand making these two, of all people, the comic relief in GWTW. I think the only sane reaction to their characters is to watch Django Unchained every time you watch GWTW in order to balance out the moral scales of the universe.
Try this literary sorting hat for yourself. Think of the characters in Gone With the Wind and your reactions to them. Then stop and marvel that fictional characters can reveal so much about you. Stop and give homage to authors who are able to create such iconic and evocative characters that people talk about them for decades, if not centuries. Then give those authors the due they deserve, whether it is Margaret Mitchell, JK Rowling, Shakespeare, or someone else whose characters haunt you. Because characters capable of striking deep chords within readers are the hallmark of great books. If you're a writer, remember that. Take the time to build and get to know your characters before you even start to write your book.
How do you feel about the characters in Gone With the Wind? Who are some of your most memorable characters in literature? Your favorites and your least favorites? I'd love to know which characters speak to you and what they tell you about yourself or the world.
By Katy Munger | July 25, 2016 at 08:08 AM EDT | 3 comments
Whenever I conduct a writer’s workshop, I always learn something from the experience. Whether it's an attitude or a question or, perhaps, an unexpected answer from the audience – I always leave having realized some new truth that helps me in my own writer's journey. This past week is a great example. It was a busy week for Piedmont Laureate workshops. I conducted a workshop for elementary school students, another for high school students, and still another for adults. When I was done, I was left with the realization of how very personal imagination is, how much it fuels a writer’s need to write, and how big a role it plays in making a book your own. The week left me with a healthy respect for the connection between a writer’s imagination and their voice.
Each workshop was different, bringing a new realization about how we view imagination. The youngest children were brimming over with creativity, their boundless energy sparking idea after idea after idea. But they had something else, too: fierce pride in their own imagination, pride that sometimes spilled over into outrage when their suggestions were not adopted. I began the workshop by explaining the different elements of mystery writing and asking the children, as a group, to give me ideas for settings, motivation, plot events, and characters, especially heroes and villains. They did not need much explanation, beyond a brief discussion of those same elements as played out in the Harry Potter book series. Soon they were coming up with places to set our group mystery (college was a popular choice), heroes (many nominated themselves), and villains (they preferred their villains to be as different from themselves as possible, ideally big, bad, and easily recognizable). With nearly 30 kids in attendance, it was impossible to use everyone's ideas—and not all of the children could cope gracefully when their suggestions were not chosen. In fact, when it became obvious how important their own ideas were to their sense of self, I changed plans and had them complete the story on their own to give all of them the opportunity to write exactly what they wished.
Later, after I had talked to two much older groups, I realized that this sense of ownership over our imagination is what creates writers. The need to give voice to our imagination, and to organize and sort it out as we see fit, is why many writers choose the solitary life of sitting in front of the computer, living with fictional characters rather than real human beings, spending hours and days and lifetimes marshaling their imaginings into stories.
In a separate workshop that same week, I taught a group of attentive teenagers a range of techniques that writers can use to organize their books and inspire compelling plots. I was amazed when, having gone through the fairly complicated process of identifying a basic book structure that appeals to today’s readers, every attendee immediately set to work creating a book timeline of their own by overlaying their own ideas onto the generic structure. Even the teenagers who walked in that day without any work in progress immediately came up with an idea for a book and steadily fleshed out that idea for over an hour. But unlike the younger children, they were almost unanimously private about their ideas. Although I encouraged them to get feedback from their desk mates, most were content to work quietly, with one-on-one help from me on how to build out their narratives. By the time we were done, I was struck by how seriously they took their ideas and envious of how they still retained an intimate connection to their imaginations. Clearly, most of their ideas came from a very personal place inside them, they recognized that, and they were instinctually driven to protect them. I started to wonder if maybe maintaining that connection and exploring the more private places of our imaginations wasn't the key to writing a book uniquely my own.
Finally, I ended the week by conducting a workshop for 10 adults, all of whom are part of an ongoing national writers’ movement. They were intensely focused on what I was saying as I led them through my process for creating the bones of a book and using a combination of brainstorming and different outline techniques as the foundation for a strong first draft. It was clear from their questions that they were relating what I was saying to their own work in progress. As they took notes and asked me more questions, I was struck by how much they respected their own work and, by extension, their imaginations. They understood the challenges of their books and seemed eager to learn any new techniques that might help them build a better book and make it their own. Many of their questions had to do with my own choices as a writer, inspiring me to look at my own influences in more detail. I walked away from that workshop with a much clearer understanding of what drives me as a writer: my distant past, my life's experience, my successes and my failures, my disfunctions and my strengths, my disappointments and my joys, my ideas about fairness and justice, my hopes for a better world—they are all there in my imagination, feeding the books I write. I need to understand that, and to respect that, if I hope to write books that are uniquely my own.
I used to think that it would be fascinating to be a psychiatrist for writers, that by listening to them speak as honestly as possible in the confines of a safe, treatment room, and then poring over their work to discern the unspoken pain of their lives, that I could make the connection between my own subconscious and the books I write. But now I realize that there is an inherent judgment in that scenario, an assumption that there is something in me that needs fixing that will be revealed by my writing, an assumption that encourages a desire to hide behind words rather than use them to reveal truths (an impulse I think many other writers feel). I am going to reject that notion. I now see that attempting to scrub traces of ourselves from our imaginings is a mistake. Because our imaginations are a lot like our dreams: a stew of desires, impulses, fears, deeply rooted need, and an overwhelming drive to control our own destiny and connect to others. It's just that, when you writing, you are given the opportunity to bring order to the chaos. Unlike dreams, you get to define how these very personal forces unfold as well the ending. But both our dreams and our imaginations are deeply, deeply personal and the only way to make what we write truly our own is to understand and respect that.
In the end, I came away from each workshop with valuable lessons that will make me a better writer. Going forward, I'm going to take fierce pride in my ideas, like those elementary school children so connected to their imaginations. Then I am going to acknowledge the connection between my ideas and the forces that drive me in this lifetime, shaping who I am. After that, rather than fearing that these inner drives might be divined by my readers, I am determined to respect the personal foundation of my imagination, honor myself, and write a more authentic book the next time I sit down to write.
By Katy Munger | July 11, 2016 at 11:47 AM EDT | 3 comments
When I was little girl, I used to spend whole afternoons perched in a tree in my overgrown backyard in Raleigh’s Cameron Park, reading books for hours while eating fresh tomato sandwiches on toast. I can still feel the sharp bite of toast in my mouth and the sting of tomato as I turned the pages, lost in my own private world. (That's me on the right in the photo, in my prime tree-climbing days, no doubt clutching some unsuitable paperback to my chest. No one was getting my book away from me.)
God knows there was no shortage of books for me to choose from, and little supervision over what I read. I read from the original first editions of the Mother West Wind books, plowed through every single one of the Wizard of Oz books, and got an early dose of detective fiction with the Boxcar Children and the Bobbsey Twins. But I was just as likely to be reading Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Nathanael West (clearly exhibiting a dark streak early!), or even Aldous Huxley and Sinclair Lewis. My grandfather had been a Chicago time study engineer in the meat packing business and so his shelves yielded Upton Sinclair as well as all three volumes of Shelby Foote's Civil War series. As I got older, I discovered Lady Chatterley's Lover and a massive medical guide to psychiatric disorders under my mother’s bed that kept me rapt for weeks. Later on, when my father became the book editor of the News and Observer, I had veritable mountains of books to choose from whenever I read. But I think one of my favorite reading experiences was methodically working my way through a huge pile of original Life magazines stacked in our living room that chronicled decades long past. I became a time traveler and still feel, deep inside me, as if I actually lived through those decades — such is the power of reading.
Later, as a real traveler barreling down the highways of the Northeast and Canada on camping trips with my family, I would sit in the boot of our station wagon, reading James Bond for hours until, bleary-eyed, I’d look up to see some massive mountain looming in the distance. As a result, I still believe, on some level, that every James Bond book takes place in Switzerland.
I took my love of reading to college, and can vividly remember reading Gone with the Wind on a hot summer day in the tiny bedroom of a trailer parked off a then-deserted Mason Farm Road outside of Chapel Hill. I was devouring the story so rapidly that one of my cats, after observing my eye movement in silent bewilderment, tried to pluck out an eyeball. It was dangerous business reading about Scarlet, but after surviving a corneal scratch, so obsessed was I that I actually read the cheesy sequel of the same name — an absorbing but ultimately unsatisfying experience that did nothing to deter me from tackling other huge tomes like James Michener‘s Hawaii. (“Is there no place on earth safe from James Michener?" — an unknown, and much funnier, book reviewer than I). The bigger the book, the better the book became my motto. Oh, for the days of a long attention span!
I was, of course, using reading as an escape. Those long afternoons in the crook of a tree were the only quiet times I had growing up in a house full of nine individuals, sometimes an equal amount of dogs, and more than enough drama. In college, books were an escape from all the decisions that awaited me about my life. Later, when I lived in New York for many years, books were a way to escape the city’s endless concrete and air of general disappointment that eventually gave me spiritual claustrophobia and sent me back to the South.
But somewhere along the way, in the midst of juggling two careers and raising a child, I lost the ability to sit and read for extended periods of time. The advent of social media did not help. Like everyone else, I was fascinated with this new online world and wasted hours of my life talking to strangers. When the instant high of the online scene faded, and the demands of the real world grew ever greater, I was left with a persistent tear in my soul that I could not quite pinpoint. I did not realize then that it was the lack of reading in my life. Thank God for my book club, if not for the past 15 years of needing to show up once a month having read the book, or at least part of it, I am not sure I would have read many books at all beyond those I was contractually obligated to review.
Then a lovely thing happened six months ago: I moved much closer to where I work and found myself with an extra hour a day to do with as I wished. Weary of computers, email, and instant messages, I was determined to spend that hour off-line. I began to reclaim even more lost hours, shut down the electronics, and spent more and more time reading. I discovered the joys of used bookstores and walked out with shopping bags full of everything from true crime to Proust. I started to read my books every Sunday morning in companionable silence with my housemate, one of the few people I have ever known who can actually read the entire New York Times. Every session spent reading seemed to restore some lost part of myself. I began reading for an hour after work each day in my side yard, enjoying the green among the green (as Graham Greene himself would say). Little by little, I reclaimed my reading time and reclaimed myself along the way. Now, without apology, at least once a day, I do not return messages, I ignore Facebook posts, and I let the e-mails sit as I take a book and withdraw to my solitary pleasure and let the calm of being lost in a private world wash over me. I am grateful to have found this peace — and I feel myself becoming whole again in some mysterious way.
It is nearly impossible to find privacy in this world we live in. There are always noises coming at you, messages pinging, phones ringing, images moving, and people bombarding you with ways to spend your money. Reading remains one of the very few solitary pleasures left and I am grateful I have re-discovered it.
If you, too, feel the world is too much with us these days, I highly recommend that you return to reading as well. I don’t think it matters what you choose. What matters is that you give yourself the time to sit, insulated from the madness around you, lost in the world of your pages, just you and your book, and an engaged imagination, and a soul that is grateful for the rest.
By Katy Munger | June 27, 2016 at 08:02 AM EDT | No Comments
On Saturday night, as part of the Piedmont Laureate program, I joined a number of other North Carolina writers in greeting people as they entered the North Carolina State University Theater to see two wonderful mystery-related shows,The Hollow andSomething’s Afoot.What a wonderful experience it was to see groups of people entering the lobby, their faces animated with the expectation that they were soon to see something new. Even better, I was able to meet and talk with many of them, introducing them to the writers there so they could learn more about their books. I was struck by how engaged the theatergoers all seemed, as well as by the diversity of the crowd — people of all shapes, sizes, ages and backgrounds, all there to share in the experience of live theater. They brought good-humored curiosity to meeting the authors waiting for them and it was wonderful to see one new connection after another being made. A number of people had their children in tow. I wanted to throw my arms around those parents and thank them for making sure that at least some young people grew up understanding the joy of being a part of the arts.
"It's just such a different feeling," one dapper gentleman told me. "You are part of something volatile and alive. Each show is a different experience from the one before." He remembered a show he had seen at the theater a few seasons before where, when the actor bowed, his wig flew off and skittered across the stage. "You just never know what will happen!" he said happily.
Was he in search of cultural enrichment? No. I think he just wanted to feel alive and be more than a sack of meat and bone staring, slack-jawed and drooling, at a flickering screen.
The theatergoers were a great crowd to talk to about reading. Most of them were devoted readers and eager to meet new authors and take a look at the books we write. They wanted to talk about ideas, they were open to making new friends, and they seem relaxed and at ease with themselves. There was a camaraderie in the lobby, a sort of shared acknowledgment that everyone there had something in common and that it was okay to drop the suspicion that is so easy to adopt towards strangers these days.
We need a nation of people like this. I am convinced that people who get up off their couches and head out to see theater, or attend author readings, or enjoy an arts performance of any kind, end up being less afraid of the world, less affected by the histrionic messages that pour into our homes via media, bringing fear and hostility and that persistent sense of vague doom that relentless news reports and shares of those reports can create. It is so easy to get caught up in the constant stimulation of one outrage or disaster after another that I think we sometimes forget to be a participant in the world, rather than simply a watcher of it.
I wish we could find more ways to get people out of their homes and out to arts performances. I wish we could convince more people to turn off their televisions and skip the shopping mall and take a chance on a music or theater experience, or meeting an author, or viewing a new painting or photography show, or seeing once and for all what modern dance is all about. All of these art forms are, at their heart, a form of expression and simply being there, to witness that expression, shows a respect for other people and that makes the world a better place.
So please join me in vowing to be a more active participant in what is somewhat demeaningly called "culture" these days. Be one of those happy, engaged people in the world. Be one of those people with open minds who seek out the unexpected. Be one of those people who would rather see something they don't understand than sit on a couch and watching a television show they already know the inevitable ending to. Go ahead and buy those season tickets. Go ahead and invite a friend to the next show. And if you have kids, take them to the theater, to the art gallery, to a dance performance. Let them see for themselves how much richer life can be when it doesn't come at you through an electronic screen.
By Katy Munger | June 12, 2016 at 08:52 PM EDT | 3 comments
This blog post is the final installment of an adaptation of a talk I gave on April 26th at the Cameron Village Library. Prior posts focused on the future of libraries and books. In this final post, I discuss how the world is changing for writers and why we need to change how we define success as well as what it is that we are aiming for when we write.
It’s not easy being a writer in a world where the way we communicate and absorb information changes, literally, by the day. Worse, for too many writers, this is today’s reality:
It is more difficult than ever to make a living writing books. With the rise of ebooks, more people than ever are publishing even as traditional publishers offer authors smaller advances and less support for books outside the mainstream. To make a living writing good books is even harder: you can’t make big money as an author without devoting significant amounts of your time marketing your work—yet time devoted to marketing is time away from perfecting, revising, or writing your books.
Big publishers follow a throw it against the wall and see what sticks spaghetti strategy. Authors come cheap. For a few thousand dollars, they can lock down a book, keep the competition from getting that author, throw some copies out there,and then wait and see if lightning strikes and someone manages to break out by the grace of the Internet gods or a lucky break.
Big publishers are way too fond of distracting authors in hopes we won’t notice how badly we are being treated. They do this by pitting us against one another (trust us, we’re not each other’s enemies) and by sending us off to market our own books using whatever the technique du jour may be. Maybe if we’re busy blogging or self-promoting on Facebook, we won’t notice our publisher didn’t buy a single ad or schedule a single interview for our newest book.
Even if you do get signed by a major publisher, it’s almost impossible to break in no matter how good your book is. Because good, new books rarely sell. What sells is another book by a name brand author, or a book by someone similar who can convince an existing big name to throw their endorsement behind them.
What do we do under these circumstances? We can start by naming it right and by claiming the power that we do have.
And what we have the power to do is control is the writing process itself, the stories we tell, what audiences we write for, and how we present our books to the public. To claim your power, start by rejecting the idea that writers are irrelevant today. As writers, we are the only people in our world who provide depth you can’t find anywhere else, depth needed to counteract the superficiality of the rest of the information we receive today. We are the only ones putting all the superficial instant messages coming at us in context and provide other people with perspective. We are the ones who connect humanity, for, absent personal contact, it is within the context of a tale that people cross demographic and geographic boundaries, to learn about one another while realizing the truth about humans: no matter where we come from, we are always more alike than we are different and we must remember to honor how we are alike if we hope to survive this world as a species.
So yes, you have great power to shape the world for the better. This is my advice to those of you seeking to claim that power:
Know why you write and who you are writing for. Is it to shine a light on how to survive a crisis? Is it to inspire people to live life more fully, or to make people laugh? Don’t type a single word until you know exactly why you are writing, who you are writing for, and how you want people to react to what you have written.
Tailor your outlet to why you write. Not everyone will have a goal that can be achieved or an audience that can be reached by having a book published by a mainstream publisher. Find your audience, learn how and where they read, then choose an outlet and a format that will bring you in touch with that audience—whether it is a full length book, self-publishing, a series of online novellas, a graphic novel, a podcast, a blog, or some other medium.
Don’t define your success by whether you get a contract from a brand name publisher. Define your success by whether you have reached the audience you were trying to reach.
Don’t play their game beyond the first three innings. If you do not get a big advance from a mainstream publisher, they have no incentive to market you. So if you do go the traditional route, and you don’t get a decent advance and marketing support by the time you reach your third book with them, find another publisher or find another way to reach your audience. Otherwise, you’re just spinning your wheels.
Only write a good book, with your truth in it, when you have something to say, no matter what your genre is. Find your voice and write your book with it:never imitate someone else… don’t write solely to try and create a bestseller because the chances are zero that you will… and above all, remember that the world does not need another bad book. If you can’t write a book with you in it, you are only contributing to information overload and that may well end up dooming us all.
Understand that the real value of being a writer lies in the process itself. You are privileged to sit down and write. Feel it, enjoy it, and make the process your destination. That's where you will be spending 99.999% of your time. Don't waste that time. Experience it and make it count.
Participate in author co-ops and other group efforts like book tours and online marketing campaigns. Channel the power of social media for all. These are your people. Support one another.
Support and honor small publishers. Help them publicize their books. Buy their books. Give them a chance to publish your book. They are our only hope for keeping quality in the book-selling business and preserving the diversity of our voices.
Protect your writing time. If you are an author, put your talent and your energy into writing. Don’t drink the Kool-Aid. No one can be a great writer, agent, designer, and publicist all at the same time. If you have to publicize your own books, save up your money and hire someone else to do it. If you have to design your own book or eBook, and you’re not proficient at it, then hire someone else to do it for you. Your job is to write.
None of these ideas are magic bullets. None of these ideas are mine alone. But they are a start and we need to start the discussion now. In closing, I’d like to urge you to be part of the discussion. Talk about it today. Make it real. Be a writer citizen of the literary world. Be a writer willing to shape the writing experience rather than sitting and taking what the future brings.
By Katy Munger | May 31, 2016 at 06:39 AM EDT | 2 comments
Part 3 of a talk I gave at the Cameron Village Library on April 26, adapted for this blog.
What does the future hold for books? I don’t mean the construction, I mean the contents—whether print or ebook. In a few decade’s time, will there even be room in our world for writing that requires attention for longer than a few moments?
My answers to both questions are simple in concept, but complex in execution. Yes, there will be room for books in the future. In fact, we will need books more than ever. Only books can illuminate the most important aspects of being human, put those aspects in context, unite people around them, and overcome the polarizing effect that 30-second messages have. Only books have the power to promote deeper thought and combat the oversimplification of issues and advice flooding our world today. But the real truth of the matter is that the future of books may depend on what we, as the readers of today, start doing now. As readers, we must find a way to:
Keep good books alive, books that go beyond the limited bestseller list selections forced on us by publishers and large book store chains that focus solely on profits.
Filter out poorly written books, especially when it comes to ebooks.
Keep small publishers afloat: they are a critically needed break-through option for authors whose voices are not yet recognized.
Support local bookstores attempting to survive financially while giving books beyond the bestseller list a place on their shelves.
Use libraries as a way to promote emerging authors.
So how do we, as readers make that happen? For a start:
Review, share, discuss, have an opinion, weigh in, keep the flame alive, pledge allegiance not just to your favorite authors but to the world of reading itself. Become an active reader and, by that, I mean an engaged citizen of the reading world. One who shuts a book and asks the question: “How can I tell more people about this book? How can I be this book’s voice?”
Seek out authors, don’t wait to be told who to read by big publishers or the bestseller lists. The internet is full of advice and recommendations. Pinpoint what you enjoy—fiction, nonfiction, humor, learning, inspirational, self-help—and then go out and uncover the hidden gems in your genre.
If you follow a big name author and they phone in it—let them know. Don’t rave about a book just because you love the author or everyone else is talking about it. Your opinion counts. Give the author and publisher feedback. Let other readers know. Life is too short and there are too many good books out there for anyone to waste time on a poorly written or derivative one.
Use your discretion in evaluating online reviews: are they real reviews, written by real readers? Is the review by someone who bothered to actually read the entire book or are they passing judgment after only a handful of pages. Is a rave review a plant or a for-pay review? It’s not hard to pick up the patterns and learn to spot the real ones. Join an online readers site, like Good Reads, for guidance from other readers.
Support efforts to bring taste to the world of ebooks. Leave reviews on ebooks. Support filtering services. I dream of a Good Housekeeping style reviewing service for eBooks, where writers pay a small fee for an objective organization to read and rate their book. Authors and publishers submit their books for review and readers look for this seal before they buy. Some websites are doing this on a smaller scale, but we need an industry-wide rating system devoid of commercial influences. If you know of a good ebook screening service, or have a better idea on how we can screen the millions of ebooks flooding the market, post it in the comments below. We need to find a way to elevate the good books lost in the ebook avalanche or we risk killing the benefits that ebooks could give to tomorrow’s authors.
Demand the benefits of technology: buy your hard copy books online from small publishers, small bookstores, or even the authors themselves… insist your local book store order print-on-demand books that you want… lobby for the big chains to pioneer print-on-demand machines in their stores so that consumers can choose from thousands of titles and have a book custom-made while they wait. In short, don’t settle for what stores carry on their shelves. Demand they listen to readers and not just sales reps.
Work with your local bookstore or library to sponsor exhibits and events that celebrate new authors, feature local authors, honor overlooked authors, or publicize small publisher offerings.
Attend readings, even those by lesser known writers, and publicize their events and books on your social media feeds. They need you to help spread the word about their writing and the power of books. Help them keep the flame alive.
Do you have other ideas for promoting the future of books or getting the word out on worthy authors? I’d love to hear your thoughts below. With enough good ideas, we can create a Reader’s Pledge and start a campaign to get people to sign it. Let’s keep the future of books alive.
By Katy Munger | May 16, 2016 at 06:14 AM EDT | No Comments
Part 2 in a series of blog posts adapted from a talk I gave at the Cameron Village Library in April of 2016.
Today’s library has become, quite literally, the only great equalizer in our society. It is a place where economic status, race, gender and citizenship are irrelevant, a place where everyone is welcome and can get equal access to knowledge that can help them better their lives and the lives of their children.
In a world where people bunker down and socialize and shop only with people exactly like themselves, in many communities, libraries have also become the only place where we run into people different from us, the only place where we have a chance to see and hear other voices.
In many ways, what libraries give communities today is the living embodiment of what you will find on the shelves of these libraries: respect for all voices, an acknowledgement that we all have something to say, and a reminder that we are better as a species when we listen to and learn from one another.
In the future, libraries will be only be called on to play this vital role even more. They are the connectors of our towns and cities and communities. They are the third place that Ray Oldenburg wrote about in 1989 as so vital to our survival as a society: a neutral place in between work and home that is:
Free or inexpensive
Welcoming and comfortable
A place where both old and new friends can be found
How then can we protect them? It's simple. We must be like the NRA: no compromise. Ever.
No compromise in the level of funding our libraries receive.
No compromise when it comes to proposals to shut down library access in neighborhoods.
No compromise when reactionary nitwits who are afraid of knowledge turn on libraries and try to destroy them because they fear them.
Fight back if this happens. Be like the people of Kansas, who paid attention when their state lawmakers tried to shut down over 100 libraries. Within a week, the people of Kansas had risen up as one and forced their state lawmakers to drop their attack on public libraries. We must be prepared to do the same, if necessary.
Remember: the library is the vanguard of civilization, a temple of knowledge that connects us to the past and the future -- but most of all, to each other.
By Katy Munger | May 02, 2016 at 09:59 AM EDT | 1 comment
This is the first in a series of blog posts adapted from a keynote speech I made at the Cameron Village Library on April 26th as part of their Backyard Authors event. Over the next two weeks, I will publish additional posts addressing the future of libraries, readers, and writers.
For the last twenty years, I have lived on the very frontline of traditional and social media and been a firsthand witness to a volatile information landscape. At the same time, I have been living the life of a writer and experiencing firsthand the challenges that publishers, bookstores, and libraries face in this dramatically changing environment.
As I have watched these worlds from a birds-eye view, I have grown increasingly fascinated with the question of exactly what role books will play in our society in the years ahead. And even as I have come to believe that authors, books, and libraries have never been needed more than they are needed now, I have also had to reluctantly acknowledge that the future of books is far from assured. I believe it is time for an epic and national conversation about how we can build a future for ourselves as writers and readers and not simply take what comes. I hope that you will be a part of it by commenting on this blog series in the weeks to come.
Let me begin by saying that we live in an absolutely transformational time for the written word. The very way we communicate with one another, entertain ourselves, absorb information, and process it in our brains is undergoing an amazing overhaul. Take a look at some of the forces emerging in the last 20 years:
People raised on television and motion pictures have come of age and replaced older generations of readers, bringing with them attention spans and expectations for plotting, pacing, structure, and characterization that are very different from days gone by. As a writer, if you ignore these changes, you risk failing to attract reader attention at all.
Media outlets and publishing companies have consolidated into worldwide behemoths that can no longer afford to put taste, quality, or vision before profits. With these big publishers, it’s all about sales now, period. Literally, and literarily, nothing else matters. Sure, commercial concerns have always dominated publishing and it’s never been easy to be a writer. But today is different. Is a book well written? It doesn’t matter. Does it have something new to say or does it say it in a different way? It doesn’t matter. What matters when it comes to big publishers is if it has a celebrity or television/movie tie-in, or if it can be built into a franchise that sells no matter what is between the covers. Thank god for small publishers.
The rise of social media—and the commercial or partisan information sources that thrive on social media by masquerading as objective—have encouraged a disingenuous, anonymous, narcissistic mindset among many people, leading to a disregard for accuracy, a belief that the truth is a matter of opinion, and frightening polarization between people, all while creating a platform where fear is the motivating factor and ridicule of others accepted. How can we expect our society to respect different voices under such circumstances—and isn’t the world of writing fundamentally based on an acknowledgement of and respect of different voices? Isn’t that what writing is? This is not a situation that writers should simply accept if you want a future. It’s time to start calling out inaccurate, self-interested news sources. Stop sharing them on social media, and educate others on how to spot them.
The rise of new outlets like blogs, ebooks, print-on-demand, and other technologies now allow anyone to be a writer and publish a book or be heard. In many ways, these tools could become our best friends. They could form the foundation for saving the world of writers and books. But right now: they are contributing to massive information overload and creating reader fatigue that threatens us all. For example, how in the world can readers find good books, well-written books, original books, in the mountain of ebooks published every day? This is a question we must address or else more and more readers (and critics) will simply give up. If you want a future for books, we must all police quality and help the good ones come to the attention of readers—even if it's not yourbook.
Knowledge and intellect have become reclassified by politicians as something to ridicule, as a wedge to drive between people, and as an excuse to justify cutting funding to libraries—the last public bastion of civilization and intellect for our communities beyond our universities. No, our country should not take pride in being stubbornly illiterate, anti-intellectual, and sometimes downright stupid. We must protect the knowledge that books represent by protecting the role libraries play in our communities.
The messages we receive in this kind of information environment have become so black-and-white, so invested with self-interest, and so crisis-oriented that satire, irony, and nuance are dead—people are literally incapable of recognizing it. Yet satire, irony, and nuance have all been fundamental tools of writers for centuries. If they no longer work with the majority of people in our society today, what tools can we use to force people to look at themselves in the mirror? Writers must answer this question or risk irrelevance.
As I look at these and other forces, and see people’s fundamental cognitive behavior changing in response to them, I find myself wondering:
What is going to happen to our libraries in the years ahead?
Will our world even have the attention span and desire to support books in the future?
How will writers fit into this new world order? How can we protect our power and our rightful role in modern society?
My next post will be about the future of libraries, coming later this week. In the meantime, please post your thoughts on these questions below!
By Katy Munger | April 18, 2016 at 08:21 AM EDT | 3 comments
One of the most frequent questions I get at readings and workshops is “Where do you get your ideas?” Although, as a crime fiction writer, I suspect what this question really means is, “You seem like such a nice person—how is it you are capable of coming up with so much murder and mayhem?” Alas, I suspect the answer to that question is much scarier than any plot I could come up with: it’s just the way my brain works. All the time. And I am not alone.
All mystery writers are secret criminal masterminds whose imaginations are constantly on the prowl for two things: 1) how to break the rules and get away with it, and 2) how to catch and punish those who do break the rules. Perhaps you may wonder which of these impulses drives us the most. Are mystery writers, at heart, megalomaniacs who enjoy breaking the polite rules of society through our characters? Or are we simply obedient members of society, superheroes with pens, who are always on the lookout for the bad guys and keen to bring them to justice?
Well, don’t waste too much time pondering the possibilities, because I’m here to tell you: all mystery writers are, at heart, rule breakers chafing under the yoke of societal expectations, even the plump, kindly-looking writers with white hair and apple cheeks. In fact, they’re the worst. Which is why our minds race about and land on the darnedest ideas whenever we get invited anywhere. Put us in a group of people and we will immediately default to amateur psychologist status, analyzing everyone we meet, soon followed by diabolical plotting in our heads.
To prove my point—and at the risk of never being invited anywhere ever again—I thought it might be fun to give you an example of what I mean, with deepest apologies to those who were there with me at the time and thought I was normal… I recently attended my high school reunion. As I entered the room, I immediately saw a friend I not had seen in years, followed by another, and still another. Soon, I was deep in conversations, laughter, wonderful memories and yet… all the while, my mind was imagining scenarios to connect the dots between the teens I had known so many years ago and the adults now standing before me. The actual life stories of my classmates were interesting enough, but the imagined lives I ascribed to them? Even better. And then I discovered the memorial table. This was a simple table holding photos of classmates who had passed on. Depending on the photo, they were forever frozen in our memories at a single age, most of them while still in high school. As I circled the table, mourning their absence at the reunion, I tried to cope with the sheer number of photos on that table, unwilling to accept that I was getting older and death a more frequent visitor to my life. So where did my mystery writer mind go in defense? To the thought that the memorial table was not simply a reminder that life was passing, and passing quite quickly, but that it had all been planned.
“What if,” I thought, “We had a classmate, someone who had been quirky and an outcast in school, someone obsessed with mathematics and patterns, someone who would have been labeled as autistic or on the spectrum today? What if he had showed up at the reunion and, like me, circled the table, peering at photos, trying to make sense of it all? And what if he had suddenly started mumbling letters, softly chanting “A, C, D, F….” then looked up in alarm, scanning the room, having discovered a pattern in the names of those whose photos appeared on the table? What if he, and he alone, had discovered that there was a killer among us—and knew who was likely to be the next victim?”
With that thought, the game was afoot. Everyone I looked at became an imagined hero or villain in this mental tale of mine. The mild-mannered girl whose name no one could quite remember? She was Carrie incarnate, out for revenge. The aging football player who had gone through four wives? He mourned his lost glory and was systematically taking out old classmates for the sheer thrill of the game again. And that former cheerleader who had spent a lifetime being a wife and a mom? She had witnessed something that told her the football player, her former high school boyfriend, was a killer and she was now secretly tracking his movements, biding her time, ready to dispatch of him quietly when no one else was looking. Maybe even tonight….
It’s insanity really. But a most enjoyable kind. Social gatherings are way more fun when you’ve got two versions of them going at the same time. Eventually I came back to reality, and to real life, and had a great night talking, dancing, and laughing. Nonetheless, sleeping somewhere in my mystery writer imagination, now lies the bones of a new plot and a cast of characters I might one day awake and command to do my bidding. In the meantime? I’m just trying to stay off the memorial table.
So the next time you find yourself at a cocktail party with a mystery writer and you catch them peering at you with an inscrutable expression—hey, don’t worry about it. They’re either killing you off, making you into a nefarious villain, or assessing you for possible hero status. No big deal, really. We do it all the time. And you know why? Because we can.
By Katy Munger | April 04, 2016 at 01:08 PM EDT | 5 comments
Whenever I see people frantically trying to stop change in the world (you know who you are, folks), I have to shake my head even if I can’t quite bring myself to laugh. What a futile fight they engage in! Because the one thing we know for sure about our world is that it changes. Always. And constantly. And that’s okay with me. I love change. It energizes me. It fascinates me. It keeps me from being bored. It keeps me engaged in life.
But for some writers, change can be a tricky proposition. Especially those of us who write series. When you write a series centered around recurring characters and locales, you enter into an unspoken covenant with your readers: you promise to deliver the familiar in every book. This is not as easy as it sounds. As human beings, most writers are in a constant state of flux. What we care about changes. What angers, motivates, and fascinates us changes. Who we are at our very core changes. And sitting down to write about the familiar when the new in you is shouting to be heard? That can be a tough task to take on and, in the end, can lead to one of the toughest balancing acts a writer can pull off: changing a series enough to enjoy the process, and staying fresh with your ideas, yet still giving your loyal readers what they have come to expect from you and want. I’m convinced that this duel between the old and the new is what causes many genre writers to end a series and begin a new one. It was certainly a factor in my own evolution as a writer.
When I first started out as a writer, I was a Southern transplant living in the teeming, foreign world of New York City. I was fascinated by how vibrant the city was and even more intrigued by its brash, relentlessly honest citizens. It was a whole new world, so far as I was concerned, and I had to write about it. The result was my Hubbert & Lil series, writing as Gallagher Gray, which is essentially my love song to the Big Apple. It was a genteel series that poked fun at the absurdity of people, celebrated the stubbornness of some, and reveled in the uniqueness of New York's varied neighborhoods. These were all fascinating concepts to me at the time.
Fast forward a decade and I had started to long for the South, even though I was living and writing in a great apartment overlooking gardens on the Upper Westside. I missed the South and its people, not to mention its more gentle ways. I was willing to settle for a veneer of politeness, if not the real thing. I needed grass and trees and ocean waters without hypodermic needles and toilet paper floating in it. I needed a lot more personal space. My writing shifted with me. A hardboiled Southern belle named Casey Jones popped up in one of my Hubbert & Lil books and, before I knew it, I was writing a whole new series around her, one set in the South that featured a tough female P.I. whose sense of humor was strong enough to get her through any situation. My Casey Jones series was, I think, a reaction to all the preconceptions about the South I had encountered in New York City. I knew the South was far more complex than it was being given credit for – and that few writers had yet captured its modern essence, with all of its contradictions and still unsettled dreams. I wanted to be a part of painting the new South. I wanted to be a part of its change. So I ended up locating both my new series and my life back here in the Triangle. Once home, I celebrated all that I had loved and missed about North Carolina in my Casey Jones books: the people, the food, its love for the past, the incredible diversity of its locations. The Casey Jones series is a love song to my homeland.
But everyone ages, at least if we are lucky. I began to realize that my fabled good nature had its limits. That some things in life were just plain sad and that it was okay to feel that sadness. I began to notice how some people I loved had never quite found their footing in life and had fallen by the wayside. I became fascinated by the idea of redemption, karma and second chances. Enter yet another series: The Dead Detective, written as both Chaz McGee and Katy Munger. This series is definitely a more mature me, one that sees both the good and the bad in a far wider range of people. It is a more nuanced love story to my own ability to acknowledge the fact that, while life is never perfect, the human spirit is capable of breathtaking strength. That’s a lesson that, once learned, can get you through anything. My writing changed with these realizations. It deepened and grew more thoughtful. I worked harder at it and it shows.
Now I am at the juncture of another era of change. I am less driven. More content. And absolutely determined to put more of myself into the next book I write. Thus it is that I find myself circling three half-written books, staring each one in the eyes, trying to decide which one is calling to me the most. I have an inkling which one it will be – I have happily discovered that talking to other people as part of my Piedmont Laureate duties leaves me thirsty for working on my own books again and have lately been ripping up, rooting out, and generally re-arranging the plot to one of these projects. It’s starting to look mighty good to me, though it is my most ambitious book to date. I suspect I will one day soon dare to finish it. Because the changes in me are compelling changes in my writing and feeding a deep need for my new voice to be heard. What is this book about? You guessed it: change, of the most profound sort, and the power we all have within us to lead new lives if we embrace it.
If you are a writer, I urge you to join me in giving your muse permission to change with your life. Listen to her… seek her out…. give her time to coalesce in her incarnation… let her be heard as who she has become today. Because there’s no greater reward than marking the changes in your life with changes in your own writing: it’s permanent and lasting proof that you are resilient enough to celebrate the changes life inevitably brings you, rather than fearing and fighting them.
By Katy Munger | March 21, 2016 at 10:17 AM EDT | No Comments
Any mystery writer who claims they don't put real people into their books is either lying or missing out on a great opportunity to improve their mental health. Because, let me tell you: I put real people into my books all the time and it’s the best reward (or revenge) on the planet. It's just one of the perks of being a crime fiction writer — if someone impresses you with their sense of morality, you can make them a hero. If someone angers you and goes unpunished for an unworthy deed in real life, then you can hold them accountable in their book by making them a villain. And if others intrigue you or charm you with their unique personalities, why there's plenty of supporting characters you can fashion in their image. And you can do this with impunity because people never recognize themselves in your books. Ever. Apparently, we see ourselves so differently from the way other people see us that it's pretty hard to spot a character actually based on ourselves. I'm glad for this. I like having my own secret world. Call it one of the perks of being a writerly wallflower.
In fact, as I reflect back on my three series, I realize that every single one of my major protagonists was built on a real person. T.S. Hubbert and Auntie Lil were both real-life New Yorkers whom I met early on in my life in the Big Apple and they embodied the best of the New York spirit to me. T.S. was a cultured, Broadway-loving, upper Eastsider who was a meticulous, lovely man as well as my first boss on Wall Street and my mentor. He became T.S. Hubbert in my Hubbert & Lil series and while I invented 95% of his character, he once said to me, "Katy — your ability to guess at the secret corners of other people's lives, and get it right, is downright scary." (I try to use this super power for good….) Meanwhile, his real-life aunt Lil was a little old lady with such grit and directness that I often stared open-mouthed at her in astonishment. She, of course, became my fictional Auntie Lil Hubbert and I learned so much from her, both in real life and in writing about her across four books. I treasure the time I last saw her, sadly at her nephew’s funeral. She came tottering over to me and gripped my arm with a steellike vise and announced that she knew I had put her into a book. "That's all fine and good," she said in her trademark gravelly voice. "But just don't push it." !!! I still want to be her when I grow up. They are both gone now, and I love that they live on in my fictional characters.
Casey Jones was based, in part, on a dear friend of mine whose indomitable spirit and ability to withstand the slings and arrows of misfortune has always impressed and astonished me. She never, for a moment, let a hard childhood get in the way of having one of the most open, generous hearts I have ever met. Making her my Casey was a love song to her spirit. I can only hope that writing about her made me a little bit more like her — and a little bit more like Casey.
Kevin Fahey, the protagonist of my Dead Detective Series, was also based on a real person, a man I met who had the potential to be so much more than he was — but who could never find his way out of depression and the bottle. I have a soft spot for the unrealized dreamers of the world and I am also a deep believer in redemption. I took my belief in redemption, added in the love and affection I had for my floundering friend, and the hero to a new series was born. Unlike Kevin Fahey, my friend never made it out of his dark and unfulfilled life — but I like to think that, somewhere, he, too, is getting his shot at redemption in the after-world.
Other characters who play supporting roles have been based on real-life people, too. Probably too many to count. For example, I took my frustration at a control freak I was forced to work with in New York City by making him into an overbearing member of the fictional Metropolitan Ballet in my fourth Hubbert & Lil. I had him fall offstage and break an ankle while trying to show the head ballerina how to pirouette. Not only did I enjoy this fictional revenge, I can assure you that there is an entire creative team at an ad agency deep in the heart of the Big Apple who are still laughing at this portrait of a man they knew all too well. Then there was the time I took my cheery–faced, apple–cheeked friend Risa Foster and made her into a notorious killer with the same name in the sixth Casey Jones, Bad Moon on the Rise. In that case, Risa had won an auction to be a character in my book and good-naturedly agreed to be the most famous inmate in my fictional women's prison. The same book featured a secretive leader of a survivalist cult who was named after my friend, Chuck Grubb, also the winner of a character auction. I took a cue from the real Chuck and gave my fictional Chuck more heart, and a little more perspective, than your typical survivalist — a nuance that the real-life Chuck deeply appreciated. Chuck is gone now in real life, too, but he got a great deal of enjoyment out of being in one of my books. I'm glad that I could give him that gift.
My other character inspirations will have to remain secret, mostly because, as an author, I get to enjoy the greatest passive aggressive stunt of them all, one perhaps enhanced by my Southern upbringing. Yes, like all good Southerners, I can smile at you and you will walk away feeling like you're my best friend when, all the while, the truth is that I'd like to slap you six ways to Sunday. But being a Southern writer, I can take this kind of behavior one step further: I absolutely assure you that if I meet someone I dislike enough, you can bet your bottom dollar that they will end up as either a victim or a reprehensible character in one of my books. In fact, right now, I’ve got a waiting list of at least three people who deserve a little light literary flogging — and one of them is perfect for my work-in-progress.
How healthy is it to make your enemies into victims and knock them off in your books? Is it mentally wise to take people who get away with evil deeds in real life and elevate them to a fictional villain so that you can bring them down and give them the punishment they deserve within the pages of your book? I don't know the answer to those questions. If you're a shrink, by all means tell me. But I can say this — it's one of the best things about being a crime fiction writer and it sure as hell feels good. Unlike real life, it gives you resolution.
Does that mean *you* could end up in one of my books by making me mad enough? Maybe. But if I were you, I wouldn’t risk it. Like I said, I’ve learned a lot from my characters….
By Katy Munger | March 07, 2016 at 09:14 AM EST | 3 comments
One of the duties of the Piedmont Laureate is to conduct workshops for other writers in the area. I’ll be doing just that in the months ahead as there are few things I love better than working with other writers and talking about writing. But with the world of writing in flux, and career trajectories no longer predictable, much less known, it’s time to look at exactly what these workshops should entail. I’d like your help with that.
With that in mind, if you are a writer of any kind – fiction, non-fiction, short form or long – what kind of workshops centered around writing would you be most likely to attend?What would be most useful to you either personally or professionally? Is there a specific aspect about the craft of writing you would find most useful, or are you more interested in exploring outlets for your writing? While I do not conduct workshops on how to get published – that question is unanswerable at the present – any other aspect of writing is a possibility. Please use the Comments section below to share your thoughts.
In addition to your ideas, I have several themes in mind for potential workshops, but I am reluctant to propose any that would not find an audience. If you are a writer reading this, or even someone thinking of dipping their toe into writing, can you do me a favor and give me your thoughts or your thoughts on whether any of the following themes appeal to you? Any feedback would be much appreciated:
The Role of Writing in Your Life
Journaling, blogging, storytelling in business, the art of letters, and why writing matters to your life.
Why Do You Write?
A workshop to help writers understand what compels them to write, what they want to get out of their writing, and what writing genres and outlets are most suited for them, given their specific goals.
The Mysterious Appeal of Crime Fiction
Why do people love mysteries so much? Learn what elements go into commercial mysteries/crime fiction these days and join in a discussion in where we go from here.
People, Places & Plots
The elements of a ripping good tale and how to make them your own.
Feeding the Muse
How to find, tap into, and hold onto sources of inspiration in the modern world.
Structuring a Book for Today's Readers
How to structure and outline a book that appeals to audiences raised on television and motion pictures.
Finding Your Voice
What makes your writing unique? How to discover and showcase your author’s voice.
Thanks for any input you can give! And if you want to be notified of available workshops once we create a final schedule, please sign up for Piedmont Laureate workshop notifications here. You will be asked to confirm your subscription using the email address you provide and your information will not be used for any other purpose. Thanks!
By Katy Munger | February 22, 2016 at 09:29 AM EST | 6 comments
This past week, socked under by a killer virus that would not abate, I sought refuge in reading true crime in front of the fire. I do not read just any true crime book that hits the racks, mind you, and you should not either. A large percentage of them consist of breathless prose highlighting the more lurid aspects of a crime, much like the detective magazines of (not-so-) old. But I do read good true crime because of the amazing psychological insights into human behavior that thoughtful reporting on a case can provide. This means I primarily read (or re-read) Ann Rule, who, until her death last year, stood head and shoulders above all other true crime writers. I know of no one else who has even come close to Rule’s ability to illuminate the cause and effects of aberrant behavior, in part because times have changed. The need to rush a manuscript to market—and be the first to offer a book on a major crime already well-publicized by other media outlets—means that few publishers are willing to wait until the case has wound its way through the courts. Tracking a non-fiction story over years is also exhausting and life-consuming, which may have been why Rule switched to short-form crime reporting toward the end of her life. But at her best, Ann Rule had an amazing capacity to let the psychological themes of a case emerge as she examined a real life tragedy, traced its inception by backtracking to motive, then detailed what happened during the trial. She always made sure to report what happened to the victim’s families, gave investigators and prosecutors their due, and followed up in the years after the verdict to see whether the punishment imposed had changed the perpetrator (answer: rarely, if ever). Each of her in-depth books on a case represented a microcosm of human behavior, invariably showcasing the best and the worst in people.
This past week, I was rereading Everything She Ever Wanted, one of Rule’s best. This is a true story of a narcissist whose firm belief that she was the only one in the world that mattered ended up shattering the lives of those unfortunate enough to have been a part of hers. Whether it was her own child, her sibling, a spouse, or an in-law – no one's needs mattered but her own and, for fifty years, she stopped at nothing to get exactly what she wanted. It's the kind of story that would not be believed if put into a fiction book, the tale of a would-be Southern Belle unstoppable in her desires and adept at manipulating others to do her dirty work for her. But the amazing thing to me was that this woman almost always overreached and got caught—yet somehow managed to evade punishment and continue her path of destruction. By the time she was sent to prison and had essentially aged out of trading on looks and sexual promises, she had managed to orchestrate the deaths of her in-laws (by their own son), attempted to poison her grand in-laws, had robbed a series of old people blind while acting as their caretaker, and had poisoned both her daughter and, nearly certainly, even more elderly people put in her care. All this while blatantly piling lie on top of lie to all who encountered her each and every day of her life.
How is it possible that a woman could get away with such behavior for 50 years? Surely her family would have noticed and acknowledged her antisocial behavior at some point and taken steps to stop her? Yet they did not. Nor did the hundreds of other people who ran into her during the course of her life, many of whom suffered from her actions firsthand.
How is it possible to fail to see a person for who they are—evil and destructive—when they have left a swath of victims behind them everywhere they go? The answer is willful blindness.And it's a powerful force in human behavior. Recent studies show that 86% of people admit they are guilty of willful blindness, which is the ability to ignore that which we do not want to see or hear. Whether it's a company poisoning its customers, a relative abusing younger family members, or a friend who regularly lies and manipulates others – it appears that human beings are wired to resist acknowledging predatory behavior. It's as if we do not want to admit that someone so very like us might be capable of actions so unlike us. This kind of denial could well end up being our downfall. Consider a world in which people embrace a political candidate because they like one thing he says, and ignore all the other appalling positions he takes. Then know that such a world is here. In a consumeristic, media-saturated society, the line between the have’s and the have-not’s is pushed into our faces every day, enflaming the self-entitled avarice of narcissists who care about two things only: receiving attention and getting what they want. Expect narcissistic behavior to disrupt your life, if it hasn’t already. And fight the urge for willful blindness.
But what I worry about the most is that the world seems reluctant to even examine our capacity for willful blindness, much less admit that we must fight it. I see this in the difference between true crime and mystery fiction. Almost every true crime book you read features a perpetrator who gets away with evil deeds only because those surrounding him or her refuse to acknowledge that their friend or family member is capable of such behavior. Yet it is rare for a crime fiction book to depict characters in such a way. Mystery books tend to have good characters, bad characters, and a few who fall in between to serve as red herrings. In our willingness to obey the beloved conventions of mysteries, what our genre has failed to do is to examine whether our fictional characters really reflect those in real life as we now know it.
Should we not pass judgment on those who have tolerated destructive behavior, or willingly failed to see it, every bit as much as we pass judgment on the villain? Should we not acknowledge that it is all too true that, for evil to triumph, all that is required is for good people to do nothing?
At the moment, I can think of only one book that examines this issue. It is a remarkable novel called Defending Jacobby William Landay. It is haunting in its depiction of how painful it can be to let go of denial. Of course, there are more mysteries that take this issue on: if you know of any novels that deal with the inability of people to acknowledge evil, thus allowing it to continue, please share it in the comments section below. But we need even more mysteries examining this phenomenon of human behavior. If the mystery genre exists to help our species examine good versus evil, we need more books that address willful blindness. Because evil does not always come in the form of a man posed beneath a neon yellow headline, knife held high in hand. Evil often looks exactly like you and me.
By Katy Munger | February 08, 2016 at 02:49 PM EST | 8 comments
Let us go then, you and I, When the evening is spread out against the sky Like a patient etherized upon a table….
These opening lines from T.S. Eliot’s iconic poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, have sparked many a debate among literary fans: is it a beautiful metaphor for twilight’s stupor… or could it be a metaphor for life itself?
As it turns out, it could very well be a metaphor for how T.S. Eliot felt when presented with a literary novel over one from his beloved detective genre. Yes, the undisputed arbitrator of literary genius was a huge detective fiction fan, a fact that the bastion of high brow writing, the New Yorker, revealed in this recent illuminating article. And not only was T.S. Eliot a devoted reader of the genre, he also wrote a number of anonymous reviews of detective novels and stories, defending the conventions of the genre with passion and advocating for some of its most notable authors in the time between the two great world wars.
Where was T.S. Eliot when I needed him? I have spent much of my career defending my decision to go into crime fiction as an author and remain as surprised as anyone that I have chosen to dwell there for decades and counting. But now that I know a man of unimpeachable authority in matters of literary judgment shares my passion, I have decided to stop mincing words when it comes to why I choose to write crime fiction over what some in the world might describe as more worthy novels. If J. Alfred Prufock can dare to eat a peach, then I can surely dare to point out the obvious in this endless debate:
There are astonishing literary books that capable of changing your life, if not the entire world. They illuminate some corner of being human with such a pure light that you can suddenly feel connected to all the world and find both comfort and delight in being part of the human species. But there are also self-involved, snooze fests foisted on us regularly as “literary fiction” and all they are going to do is put you to sleep (if not etherize you upon a table).
The exact same claims can be made about crime fiction. Some authors in the genre produce books that are evocative, poignant, and can change the very way you view life. Other authors are always chasing the market, pumping out derivative plots that are predictable in their unpredictability and feature characters who become parodies of themselves.
Often, the only distinction between the two genres is a random marketing decision made by an editor, because let me tell you: plenty of literary successes have centered around a crime (too many to list), and plenty of crime fiction is beautiful from a “literary” standpoint (read early James Lee Burke and tell me I am wrong).
In fact, the only consistent difference between the two genres is structure: crime fiction demands that authors follow a much more rigid set of rules when it comes to plotting, pacing, and characterizations. Not that these rules can’t be broken, but, in general, you will, indeed, find an actual plot in a crime fiction book while all bets are off when it comes to literary fiction. Count on this counting more and more as the years pass: we generations raised on television and motion pictures do not tolerate stories that get bogged down in the minutiae of some free-associating inner journey toward a highly personalized realization of the mundane. We grew up on stories that move, quite literally. A book that stagnates is a book that gets closed. This journey toward self-absorption that too many writers equate with the “literary” is only likely to get more tedious as we are buried in a self-centered avalanche of Facebook posts, Twitters snipes, and Instagram posturings. In a world that’s “all about me,” what books can bring us is how it’s really all about “we”—and crime fiction makes those connections very, very well.
So perhaps it’s time to put a fork in it and accept the inevitable, just as T.S. Eliot did: a book that pulls you in and keeps you there, a book that doles out justice and follows a fair set of rules, is a welcome respite from real life. Let’s shift the debate to where it really counts: let’s talk about original books vs. copycats…. books with something to say, rather than books with nothing new to offer… and books that make the most of the written word rather than simply being descriptions of TV shows on paper.
Help me prove my point. Share some “literary” books that are actually centered around a crime and could just as easily have been pegged as crime fiction, or suggest crime books that shine from a literary standpoint and deserve to be read by more people. Let’s convert some new readers to my genre, shall we? I’d also love to hear from authors on why they choose to write in the crime fiction genre. Because that’s a whole other blog post and I’d like to know where I stand…
By Katy Munger | January 26, 2016 at 12:57 PM EST | 6 comments
A good villain is essential to my genre (mystery or crime fiction). In fact, a good enough villain can make a writer’s career—just ask Thomas Harris about Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. But as memorable as Hannibal was, to me the most effective villains are neither obvious nor completely unredeemable. Their evil takes on a far more subtle form. They look and act just like you or me, or they evoke feelings of sympathy—forcing us to look at the world in a more nuanced way than we are allowed to otherwise. Maybe that is why I prefer the villain in Harris’s second book, Red Dragon. He embodied one of the most intriguing kinds of villains: one that is absolutely and completely lethal, yet one you cannot help but feel sorry for.
Unfortunately, such villains are endangered species in our current cultural climate, whether fictional or real. We live in a very polarized world and people are defensive about their worldviews. So many people today cling to the notion that their values and norms are the only acceptable way to live a life. To accept the notion that evil can look, talk, think, and act just like they do is to reject the very point of their lives. They want to be able to blame someone who looks or sounds different as the root of their troubles, or even as the root of all evil. They want a villain that looks like their version of a villain. They do not want to look into a mirror.
Ironic, isn’t it, when you consider the fact that we almost always kill our own kind? Or that the most dangerous villains, those capable of infiltrating and destroying your entire world, are smart enough to know that first they must fit into it?
Sympathetic villains are equally hard to find, both in real life and in literature. They force us to look inside ourselves for why we feel connected to them—and very few people are willing to admit that, perhaps, we all have the seeds of darkness within us. Sympathetic villains also force us to acknowledge that we as a species may have a hand in creating our villains by the way we treat one another or allow others to be treated.
To acknowledge that a villain is not entirely unlike us, or that their evil may have been prevented, is to admit that we are neither invincible nor on the right track as a society. So it’s just a whole lot easier to attribute a villain’s behavior to being born bad, or being born insane, or being born to insanely bad parents. Meanwhile, the truth, like a great fictional villain, is far, far more complicated.
Good and evil. Black and white. Truth and fiction. The lines get blurred. And good writers make the most of that ambiguity.
I have my favorite fictional villains. What I’d like to know is: who are yours? I’d love to hear about some of your favorite villains from books and movies you’ve seen and why you find them so memorable. Let me know and, in the meantime: don’t look behind you. You never know who might be standing there.
By Katy Munger | January 12, 2016 at 10:15 AM EST | 14 comments
As I reviewed the 2016 Piedmont Laureate press release summarizing all the books I have written over the past 25 years, I began to wonder how in the world I had ever been able to publish 15 novels in the first place. Granted, I had grown up in a household literally surrounded by stacks of books brought home by my father, the News and Observer’s book reviewer for many years. In fact, there were days I had to read several books simply to clear a path to the front door so I could get out of the house and head to school. But why had I grown up to be a writer? I could just as easily have become a voracious reader. Why had I been audacious enough to believe anyone would ever want to read what I wrote?
As I thought more about it, the answer was simple: growing up in North Carolina made me a writer. This is a state that nurtures its writers. And it's a good thing, too. As one of my writing teachers once told me, "You could walk from the mountains to the ocean on the backs of North Carolina's writers, and the sad thing is that most of them would let you."
I cannot speak to the self-esteem of all of NC’s writers, but I can say that I am lucky to have been raised here—which is why I think it's only fitting I spend the next year passing on the love for writing I learned growing up in Raleigh. It is equally fitting for my first blog post as this year's Piedmont Laureate to be one of thanks to all of the teachers who got me here. They go back a long way, understand—all the way back to Wiley Elementary and my 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Gilliam, who did not hesitate to introduce Victor Hugo to 12-year-old savages and whose poems I can still recite by heart. All together now: "Be like the bird who, halting in his flight…" Soon after, at Daniels Junior High School, Mrs. Esping (or Esping-pong, as we liked to call her) exorcised the lazy out of me, at least when it came to writing, thanks to her insanely high standards. Meanwhile, her colleague, Mrs. Chambers, taught me something even more important. What a high it was to be sitting in her class, plodding through a text book, and hear her un-teacherlike giggles give way to helpless laughter until she looked over at me, held up an essay I had written for her class, and said: "I can’t help it—this is hysterical!"
I learned two things that fateful day in 9th grade social studies: 1) writing about underwear always makes people laugh, and 2) I could make people laugh with my writing.
After that, I was hooked and there was no stopping me. The chief trait required of my writing teachers henceforth was probably endurance rather than enthusiasm. How many pages I rained down on them during my years in the Wake County Public School System! Many of you will recognize the names I am about to evoke: Carol Carter, Phyllis Peacock, and Sally Smisson, all teachers at Broughton High School and the first human beings willing to wade through my endless stories while telling me I could be a writer. Other people during my years there fueled the flames: an art teacher named Mrs. Erlich who warned me that, while I did many things well, I would have to focus on just one if I hoped to be really good at it, advice that proved crucial to my future sanity… my journalism teacher, Mrs. Keith, who stoked my lifelong joy in word count output and thoughtfully punished the entire class, rather than me alone, that time I went off the rails from overwork and painted Hitler mustaches, cowlicks, and furry eyebrows on my friends in the High Times photos while reviewing the proofs at the printers. (Yes, that was me. I can only pray the statute of limitations has run out.)
This environment of constant encouragement and time for literary exploration was all it took to send me to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where fabled names awaited me in the creative writing department there. I will always love Daphne Athas for teaching me that words have color, sounds, and even taste. She taught me to take joy in sentence construction as well as in the rhythm and cadence of words. I learned the art of the story arc from Max Steele, along with a warning to look out for the competitive urges of other writers and keep my ideas quiet until they were made real. Lewis Rubin taught me that life is too short to spend time pretending bad writing is good. Sure, he was intimidating—but he also believed passionately in the traditions of the southern novel and opened a whole new world of reading for me. Marianne Gingher taught me that there is a huge difference between having the potential to be a writer and being willing to work on the skills that elevate you to professional status. I took her class during her very first year as a professor in UNC’s creative writing department and am astonished that so many years have now passed that she has since retired as its head. And I would be remiss if I did not mention Bill Hardy of UNC’s Radio, Television, and Motion Pictures department. Bill taught me to respect my creativity, showed me how it could actually pay the bills, and introduced me to the thrill of watching your writing come alive. I will never forget a teleplay of mine that he produced, not only because I ended up with lifelong friends out of the process but because it taught me that writing is interactive—you never truly know what you have written until others have read it and brought their own experiences to it.
These are the people that sent me to New York, confident in my ability to write, and it was their memory that brought me back home to North Carolina 16 years later in search of a world filled with people just like them. I am so proud to be from a state that treasures the literary arts as a reflection of who we are as a society. I am so proud to be from a state that has committed its resources, for generations now, to ensuring that its young people have the chance to fall in love with writing in the first place, and then actually learn the craft that allows them to be part of that world and to let their voices be heard. I can only hope that future generations will be able to say the same. I can only hope that the great state I am proud to call home continues to support the literary arts as it has done throughout its history.
So when you hear me speak, attend one of my workshops, or read something of mine in the year ahead—and I truly hope you will do all of these things—know that I am here, representing all writers, only because I was lucky enough to be raised in North Carolina.