Reading Farther Afield

Writers should read. We should read a lot. It’s true, and we all know it — even once we figure out that reading is a great way to avoid writing.

I don’t read nearly as much as I did in earlier decades. I do, however, read, usually two or three or four books at once, and that doesn’t include the manuscript or two that I’m editing.

Recently I took on a book that was way off my beaten track: Agents of Empire: Knights, Corsairs, Jesuits and Spies in the Sixteenth-Century Mediterranean World, by British historian Noel Malcolm. I was turned on to it by a copyediting job, a journalist’s ms. that combined history and memoir about the Adriatic. Almost everything about it was new to me. I had to look a lot up. Agents of Empire and its author were mentioned more than once. I requested the book from the regional library system.

It’s well researched, well written, and altogether riveting, but I have to admit: It was also challenging, because I had so little background in either the Mediterranean world or the 16th century.

That turned out to be a plus. Agents of Empire shed a lot of light on areas I was somewhat familiar with, as well as introducing me to perspectives I hadn’t considered. I’ve never really understood what happened in the Balkans after the former Yugoslavia broke up. This book about the 16th century gave me some clues.

As a result, I’ve resolved to take more deep dives into areas about which I know next to nothing.

For those interested, here’s my review of Agents of Empire on GoodReads:

Agents of Empire: Knights, Corsairs, Jesuits and Spies in the Sixteenth-Century Mediterranean World by Noel Malcolm

I was drawn to Agents of Empire because it’s about a part of the world and a period about which I know next to nothing, and it came well recommended. Wow. Professor Malcolm was already adept in the Balkan region and the early modern period when he came across a chance reference to a 16th century manuscript that seemed to have been written by an Albanian native — the earliest extant evidence of such a thing. It took him years to track it down, but after he did (IIRC it was lying unremarked in the vast libraries of the Vatican) it proved to be a sort of Rosetta stone, leading to the interlocked Bruni and Bruti families.

The Brunis and Brutis were indeed rooted in Albania, but to say they got around is an understatement. The book’s subtitle gives you an idea: in two or three generations, they produced a Knight of Malta, a Jesuit, a ship’s commander at the Battle of Lepanto (1571), a few spies, a translator at the Ottoman court, a powerbroker in Moldavia, and several merchants. Using their stories as threads, Malcolm creates a rich tapestry of place and period primarily from the perspective not of kings and emperors, popes and sultans (though they do appear in the story), but of those a couple of levels down in the socioeconomic hierarchy.

Readers who come to this book with more knowledge of the period will undoubtedly retain more of the details, but for me its great gift is its challenge to my notions of geography. Even though I know better, I fall into the habit of seeing Europe, Asia, and Africa as distinct entities. Focusing on the Mediterranean in a period when most long-distance travel was by sea undermines that habit in a big way. Commerce binds the coastal areas together; the never-ending need for raw materials, foodstuffs, and livestock binds the coasts to their inland regions. The players in Agents of Empire range as far as Spain, and a whole sequence takes place in the South of France.

Much warfare takes place on the water as well, less in pitched battles than in raids on shipping. The sea lanes were lifelines, and ships at sea were popular targets for corsairs and pirates. (Corsairs, I learn, professed some loyalty to a particular state. Pirates were entirely self-employed.) This spawned continual negotiations between municipalities for the ransoming of captives and the return of or compensation for cargo. Enslavement was a booming business. The relatively affluent and/or well connected had a good chance of being ransomed. The others were likely to wind up on the galley benches — those ships did not depend entirely on sails to get around.

Finally — I wish this book had been around when I was trying to make sense of the bloody war that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The shifting border between the Ottoman Empire and the various jurisdictions east of the Adriatic explains a lot. Warfare was frequent here too: several members of the Bruni-Bruti clan died in battle or when cities fell, and others lost their livelihoods and had to relocate. The region was multiethnic, multilingual, and multi-religious (Orthodox, Catholic, and Muslim); while the Ottoman Empire was strong enough to hold it together, it was reasonably cohesive at least on the surface, but the potential fault lines were there.

So I recommend Agents of Empire to anyone interested in either the place or the period, even if you’re starting out with little background. Prepare to feel a little overwhelmed, but trust me, it’s worth it. I recommend it to those already familiar with Mediterranean history, too, though it’s probably been on your shelves for several years now.


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W Is for Walking

So I sit down to write about how walking is the best way I know to break up my writerly logjams and what should pop up on my Firefox homepage but “On the Link Between Great Thinking and Obsessive Walking,” an excerpt from a new book by Jeremy DeSilva, First Steps: How Upright Walking Made Us Human (HarperCollins, 1921). After reading about Charles Darwin’s walking routine, I came to this:

You are undoubtedly familiar with this situation: You’re struggling with a problem—a tough work or school assignment, a complicated relationship, the prospects of a career change—and you cannot figure out what to do. So you decide to take a walk, and somewhere along that trek, the answer comes to you.

I am undoubtedly familiar with this situation. It’s pretty much why I wanted to write about how walking is the best way to break up my writerly logjams.

Now I learn that not only does walking seem to lead to “significantly improved connectivity in regions of the brain understood to play an important role in our ability to think creatively,” but it may also fend off the cognitive decline that may lead to dementia.

Some people walk because they have a dog. I have a dog — I’ve had three dogs — because I walk. People knew I walked so they’d encourage me to take their dogs along while they were at work. A couple of those dogs occasionally stayed overnight. One thing led to another and before long I had a dog of my own: the late Rhodry Malamutt (1994–2008). Travvy (2008–2019) was born the day after Rhodry died, though I didn’t know that till a couple of months later. Tam’s litter was due the day after Travvy died but was four days late.

Tam and I walk around four miles every day, a little over half in the morning and the rest in late afternoon or evening. Problems unsnarl themselves, ideas slip in without warning. Maybe one of these days I’ll run into Charles Darwin.

Me and two-month-old Tam, out for a walk, May 26, 2019. Photo by Albert O. Fischer.
Tam and me almost two years later, April 19, 2021, near the same place, caught by the same photographer

N Is for Negative Capability

I was thinking that N might be for Narrative, but then I read the “N Is for Narrative” I posted during the 2017 A to Z Challenge in this blog and thought No way could I surpass that.

I’ve had thoughts like that recently when rereading stuff I wrote 40 years ago. Has it all been downhill from there? I can’t help wondering. At the same time, I see in those long-ago essays and poems strong traces of who and where I was at the time, what I was reading, what my friends and I were talking about, what I thought was so important I was moved to write about it. Moral of story: Write it now. Don’t put it off.

So Narrative was out. The obvious alternatives, to my mind anyway, were Names and Negative. I could say a few things about names, but the thought didn’t inspire me. “Negative” felt, well, too negative. Not that learning to deal with “no” isn’t crucial for writers. The “no” coming from within can shut us down completely. The “no” coming from publishers, publications, and workshops or courses we were dying to get into can be devastating.

I didn’t want to write about that either. Not now, anyway.

Mulling over “negative,” “negativity,” and “negation” on my walk this morning, I recalled a workshop leader, a poet, talking about “negative capability.” The phrase came from John Keats, but I didn’t remember what it meant. So I looked it up.

The Poetry Foundation includes “negative capability” in its “Glossary of Poetic Terms,” calling it “a theory first articulated by John Keats about the artist’s access to truth without the pressure and framework of logic or science.” The entry goes on: “Contemplating his own craft and the art of others, especially William Shakespeare, in one of his famous letters to relatives Keats supposed that a great thinker is ‘capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’”

The Wikipedia entry is more enlightening. First it gives the phrase in fuller context: “I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Then it notes, one, that this was the only time Keats used the phrase, and two, that the letter in which it appeared didn’t circulate widely until after Keats’s death (in 1821, of TB, in Rome, at the age of 25).

Aha, think I. All we really have is Keats’s definition: “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” All the rest is commentary, some by Keats in his short lifetime and even more in the ensuing three centuries by subsequent scholars, critics, poets, and the like. It must be OK to push all the talk about “beauty is truth and truth, beauty” (from Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”), about art vs. science and intuition vs. reason, to one side and just focus on what Keats wrote in that letter:

“. . . when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

Turn that “man” into “poet” or “writer” or “artist,” or “scientist” or “philosopher,” for that matter, and you’ve got it. It’s about being open to what flows into your mind, or what flows through your fingers when you’re freewriting. It may not be fact or reason you’re tempted to reach out after — more likely it’ll be undone dishes or unmade phone calls or the terror of the blank page. The blank page is where it starts.

Negative capability. Openness. Being ready for anything.

Group(s) Work

Allison Williams’s post about organizing a writers group for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, in which writers aim to complete the first draft of a novel in one month) has useful tips for starting writers groups in general. Note especially that in her NaNoWriMo group not everybody is working on a novel, but one guideline is “Set a big goal” — something you’ll have to stretch to complete in a month. Write on!

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We’re gonna write…ya wanna make something of it?

Remember that class where the teacher put people in groups and everyone shared a grade? How there was always that one person who slacked and drove everyone else crazy, and someone (possibly you) who worked double overtime to get the project done so you didn’t all fail?

Yeah, groups can really suck. Even writing groups, where we’re all there voluntarily…but so is That Writer. Plus the people who read too long, or ask for professional-level editorial feedback for free, or are all at wildly different levels.

But writing groups can also be great. November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), in which writers all over the world shoot for 50000 words, from scratch(ish). I was on the fence about whether to participate: I’m really more of a memoirist…it’s a big commitment…my mom’s coming to town and I want to take her…

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Should You Quit Writing?

Maybe it’s because I’m closing in on the end of draft 3 of the novel in progress and my mind is already working on draft 4, or because I never stop wondering if writing is worth all the time I spend on it, but this blog post from Brevity has an awful lot of wisdom and encouragement packed into not very many words. Like this: “It’s not the writers who question their abilities who are in trouble.”

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I feel GOOD about my work!

A writer asked me:

Have you ever in your work as the Unkind Editor told someone they should quit writing? Which may be another way of asking if you believe there may be those without the necessary abilities to write, to be published, or to be successful as an author; someone with delusional thinking who needs an unkind, direct encounter with this difficult truth.

I’ve heard versions of this question from writers at all skill levels and career stages, but especially from beginning writers who don’t yet have much outside validation and may not know enough other writers to trade work, get honest feedback, and gain a sense of their own writing level.

I feel like I suck at writing, like I’m never going to get better.

All I have are rejections. Should I stop trying to get published?

Nobody I know wants to…

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On Research, Writing, and the “Rambling Path”

Says the author: “I never quite know what I’ll need until I’m writing, so really, I could argue that everything is research.” Exactly.

At the moment I’m doing the kind of research that almost anyone would call “research”: finding out what happens at the local hospital when an 11-year-old survivor of sexual abuse shows up with two adult friends and (eventually) her mother. The next step is to go sit in the ER waiting room for a while and just take it in. It’s always easier for me to write a scene when I can visualize the setting. Sometimes the setting becomes clearer as I write.

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zz Coffelt photo 400x600By Allison Coffelt

“Excuse me.  Can I ask you a few questions?” I say as I walk up to someone.  “I’m here doing some,” I flip open my black, two-fold wallet. The camera cuts to a close-up of a glinting gold badge.  “Research.”

This is how I sometimes imagine it, as a cheesy crime drama, with research as my credential.  I love research.  I love research so, so much.  Though it took me a while, now I even love to call it research; there is power in that label, and the way it offers me a little extra confidence to walk around, asking better questions.  A walk in the woods trying to improve plant identification?  Research.  A trip to the museum?  Research.  A rock concert? Sure; that’s research.  I never quite know what I’ll need until I’m writing, so really, I could argue that everything is research.  Though I do…

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Slender Trends In Modern American Horror: How Original Are We Really?

I don’t write or read horror (so I tell myself), but horror or dark fantasy elements are working their way to the surface of my mainstream novel, and this blog post (essay, really) has given me valuable insight into what I’m dealing with and how to develop it further. If you deal with myth and archetypes in your work (don’t we all??), do yourself a big favor and follow the Zombie Salmon.

Zombie Salmon (the Horror Continues)

For most of us older Horror writers and readers, the whole Slenderman takeover of youthful Horror audiences has remained slightly under the radar. Were it not for the heinous attempted murder trial of two unbalanced young girls which keeps resurfacing, it probably would have remained so…For many it is shocking, alarming…coming from nowhere – which makes it even more terrifying to contemplate.

Except for one thing: this whole scare-the-kids business with men in suits has been done before.

It might come as a shock – if not a disappointment – that the whole mythology of Slenderman is as old as, well, dirt. The fact that it tends to resurface in each generation or so is of mild interest, and often fanned by spinners of paranormal legend-making, offered often as proof that there are some paranormal “things” which have some basis in reality…thereby escalating the level of fear with which we…

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The Value of Getting Sh*t Done

One reason I’m not blogging much here is that I’m getting (other) sh*t done. Also blog posts like this say it better than I can. Meanwhile, if you’ve got any editorial or writerly questions or comments, please use the Got a Question? tab above to send ’em in.

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Gosh, is this race even worth finishing? thought no sprinter ever.

First, dedication to writing is not an amount. It’s not an amount of words. It’s not a number of days. Dedication is not measured by output.

You get to call yourself a ‘real writer’ even on the days no words appear on the page. Even on the days full of rejections, the days you think no-one will ever care. Even on the days you feel like an outsider.

Thinking time counts.

Reading counts.

Supportively going to someone else’s reading counts, even if it’s someone whose work you don’t really like but you’re trying to rack up karma points for your own hoped-for readings later and you spend the whole time imagining your own book deal while noting one point on which to ask a relevant question.

But there’s still value in completion.

Process is great. We all need process…

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Writing in Second Person

One of the perks of using pen and ink is interesting ink blots. That plum color is for Glory’s POV sections, and green is for Shannon’s. I can’t remember what I last used the purple (“amethyst” it’s called) for.

Near  the end of April’s A–Z Challenge I blogged “Y Is for You,” which got me thinking about writing in second-person point of view. I’d never done it, but I wanted to give it a try.

Opportunity soon came knocking. Wolfie, the novel in progress, needed a brand-new scene. When I add a scene in a later draft — the current draft is 3, or maybe 3 1/2, because after I take a scene from draft 3 to my writers’ group, I usually end up at least tweaking it and maybe revising more heavily — I have a pretty strong idea of what it needs to accomplish.

In this case Perfectionista and my internal editor teamed up and swore I’d never be able to pull it off. Since I was busy with the A–Z Challenge, several editing jobs, and revising earlier scenes in the novel, I managed to not-hear their ragging for several weeks.

Finally I was staring down the empty place where the missing scene had to go. I knew where it took place, I knew who was involved, and I had a pretty good idea of what had to happen.

What I didn’t know was whose point of view I wanted. Wolfie has two point-of-view characters: Glory, a sixth-grader, whose sections are all in third-person present; and Shannon, her fifty-something mentor from up the road, whose sections are all in third-person past. Perfectionista was full of advice about why neither one would work. The result was that I couldn’t get started.

If you can’t get started, your writing can’t teach you what you need to know. Haven’t we been here before? Yes, we have.

The way out of these jams is usually through writing in longhand, which is how I do virtually all my first-drafting. It takes the pressure off. Aha, thought I. An opportunity to play around with second-person POV!

The pressure was off: since this wasn’t “for real,” I could write the scene from both Glory’s POV and Shannon’s. I picked up my green-ink pen — green is Shannon’s color; plum is Glory’s. What flowed out of it was Shannon’s second-person POV in the  present tense:

You’re apprehensive about this visit without knowing why. Foresight is notoriously unreliable — hindsight is always 20/20. What you’re seeing isn’t a red light, however. There’s no dread in the pit of your stomach warning that this is a really bad idea.

Glory has been looking forward to this all week. She’s got her portfolio tucked under her arm — she’s apprehensive too. “Do you think he’ll like them?” she asked in the car. “He’s a famous artist and I’m just a kid.”

It felt right. My hand kept moving across the page, and the next page, and the next — seven pages’ worth. When I got to the end, I had a scene that did all I wanted it to do, and more. It’s the “more” that tells me I was tapping into the heart of the story, reasonably free of my authorial expectations and inhibitions.

Why did it work? As Shannon says, “Foresight is notoriously unreliable. Hindsight is always 20/20.” Once I had my scene, I could see why Shannon’s was the right POV because the key interaction takes place between the other two characters, Glory, her young protegée; and Giles, her artist friend, whose studio they’re visiting.

And I could see why present was the right tense, even though all of Shannon’s sections are in past: In present tense Shannon watches the scene unfold and doesn’t interrupt, doesn’t try to steer Glory and Giles’s conversation away from possibly portentous revelations. In past tense, her penchant for mulling things over sometimes gets in the way. In present tense, it didn’t.

Where was I in all this? Right behind Shannon’s eyes. It was as if she were a camcorder and I were — not the operator, but the viewfinder. In third person I’m an invisible part of the scene. This was different.

I’ll almost certainly translate this scene into past tense for the actual manuscript. A sudden shift into second-person present for a character who’s otherwise in third-person past would be too jarring, too gimmicky. But the shift into second-person present made the scene happen. I’m not going to forget that lesson anytime soon.

Here’s what page 1 of the experiment looks like. Good luck if you can read it. 🙂

Z Is for Zipped

Some book-length jobs arrive in a single file. Others have a file for each chapter, plus frontmatter, backmatter, author’s bio, and maybe captions and other stuff. Multiple files can be attached to a single email, so the client zips them into a single compressed file and sends it that way.

When I receive it, I save the file in the appropriate folder and unzip it. Voilà, all the individual files are there in their own folder, waiting to be opened and worked on.

Z also stands for zed, which is in fact how the last letter of the alphabet is pronounced in lots of places. And here are, on the last day of April, at the end of the alphabet.

Wow. I did it!

A couple of days ago I panicked. In the A–Z Challenge you were supposed to get Sundays off, but  Saturday was “Y Is for You” so Z was going to have to come on either Sunday or the first of May. Had I missed a day, or a letter? I grabbed my chairside calendar and counted. Three times I counted, and every time Z fell on Sunday, April 30.

Whew.

The lesson for me here is that I can come up with stuff to say almost every day of the month. I don’t have time and I have nothing to say and I’m too tired and I’m not inspired today and That’s too obvious and I said that already are just excuses. Start writing and the words will come.

I knew that already, right? So do you. That’s what this blog is about. But it’s something we have to keep learning and relearning. The alphabet may come to an end, but the writing doesn’t.

Write on!