Medieval Second Half

I'm through with a solid edit of the first first half of my medieval novel, and I've just caught myself wondering whether or not I like the story as I've devised it. 

Is this writerly insecurity? Yep. At this point in the process, it's hard to say how well I've done, whether it will compel readers, and whether some harried agent will like it. 

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All I can do is look at it critically as I go, tweak, cut, and revise, as my inner editor sees fit. But I do plan to let a free-lance editor see it when (I think) it's done. Writing pal, Lyn, says it's an important story, one worth both the writing and the reading. I trust her judgment. 

So. The second half is about to begin. 


Fun-Awful Dissertation

Drift, by Rachel Maddow


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Had Maddow not already obtained a doctorate in political science, and had she not already made her bones as a Rhodes scholar, this book would have made a competent doctoral dissertation. Heck, other members of the press have already grilled her about the book, and judging by what I’ve seen, she’s comported herself admirably. So I’d say she’s passed her orals one mo’ time. I would have to wonder, though, how a dissertation committee would have reacted to her occasional wry wit and casual but almost always impassioned voice (virtually the same as her speaking voice). the author seems to have fun at what she does, even when the subject is as dire as this one. But to the book.

The central idea in Drift lies in her chronicling of the somewhat innocent way in which the U.S. Congress has gradually ceded the right to declare war to the President. Her investigatory data isn’t controversial; it’s all a matter of record. Congress has been more than glad to cede these responsibilities, for the most overt of political reasons: dodging that often controversial duty in order not to have it hanging over their heads at election time.

With this shift of war-making from the legislative to the executive has come with a move to increasingly hire mercenaries – again for those most overt of political reasons – and Congress and the U.S. public has gone along, largely because the spate of mini- and not-so-mini-wars since the Reagan era has asked little in the way of commitment of the public at large and has had relatively little personal impact on the public – much less so than had there been a draft, as in the Vietnam era. But is this way of waging war cost-effective? NOT! We now spend more on our military than all the world’s other militaries put together.

Finally, Maddow turns to the 2,000 or so U.S. nuclear weapons either in storage or deployed today. Some are deteriorating, some have been lost, others juggled ineptly. And this with all the money in the world to be spent on things military.



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This is an awful subject, but Maddow has taken it on admirably. All told, her critique here is one of a cold war mindset that refuses to thaw. I could quibble with a few of her judgments; still for U.S. citizens across the political spectrum, Drift should be a must-read.


My rating: 18 of 20 stars



Deep Inside The Events of History


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The Divorce of Henry VIII – – The Untold Story From Inside The Vatican, by Catherine Fletcher.

One of the slams against history, one that fiction often attempts to solve, is that history texts, research papers, biographies, and history-as-consumer-nonfiction often strike a pose from afar, leaving too many details out. Such history often supplies the broadbrush generalizations, but supplies all too little supporting verbiage, often from only one perspective.

Such isn’t the case with Catherine Fletcher’s book. She’s chosen a most specific segment of a famous  life – in Henry’s case, only one-eighth of his married life. Still, the story as she tells it is almost too broad to carry out in specifics. But she does. As this somewhat melodramatic episode begins, Henry is disenchanted with first wife, Catherine, because she won’t bear him a male heir. He shuns her, bent on marrying Anne Boleyn, but England is still a Catholic nation, and Pope Clement VII won’t grant him a divorce.


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Toward the difficult end of disposing of Catherine, Henry enlists the help of the Casali family, who represent Henry’s quest for divorce before the Vatican. The details are too voluminous and tedious to even paraphrase here, but there’s a war going on between The Holy Roman Empire and France, involving the various duchies and city-states of Italy. This of course involves Clement, but he’s in no frame of mind to grant a divorce, anyway. So Henry enlists the aid of others to gather legal and moral opinions on the divorce from a number of academic institutions – and he succeeds in making a case for the divorce.

Meanwhile, Henry is cohabiting with Anne, and Clement becomes even more adamant about the divorce – to the point that a debate begins concerning Henry's possible excommunication. At this point, Henry severs the Church of England from Catholicism. Ironically, Anne bears him another daughter, Elizabeth Tudor, destined to become queen. And many of those who have aided Henry in his cause meet ill ends – including the Casali brothers.

This book is eminently researched, and the author’s story told in detail, in an often conversational voice. However, the book isn’t light nonfiction reading – the author has simply chosen to provide too many historical details, and too few personal, emotional details for that. She has, however, pieced together a lot of disparate history into a taut timeline that should be of use to novelists and historical researchers interested in these events specifically and in the nature of European diplomacy during this era. Toward that end, while it can be a difficult read, it’s a valuable book.


My rating: 16 of 20 stars




The Writer’s World


Writers! Think you have nothing to write about? You're hopelessly blocked? Take a look around. If not at the world at large, which is going through more significant changes than at anytime in the past century, then at the good old U.S. of A. Just to list a few topics within those borders to set your readers' blood a-boil:

  • Two wars, and an urge by some here to get into another
  • Sexual politics
  • The new immigration
  • Climate change
  • Religion – – or not
  • Technology
  • Education
  • Alternative communities

Use one (or more of these) to set an impending crisis in play, invent characters to act it out…and you're suddenly 50 pages into a new novel.

Now, who said you had writer's block?

The Millions : Bolaño’s Last, Great Secret

 I've grown more and more interested in Roberto Bolaño's work since I read 2666. Many of his fans are applying for postumous cult status for him as a fantabulist, a magical realist, and that's all right, I suppose. But I don't think he's in the same class with the other Latin Americans ascribing to that literary sensibility; in fact he may be miscast there. He's more of a social realist clothed in mystery. Still, his work is unique, and he has a voice and  literary style that sets him apart from any crowd. Most importantly, his writing allows readers to view the world through a different lens, and that's immanently valuable.


1.Next year marks the tenth anniversary of the death of Roberto Bolaño, the prolific genre-bender whose narratives and exile from Chile began seriously enchanting the literary world in 2005, the year The New Yorker began publishing his short stories. Altogether, nine stories have appeared in the magazine, including January’s “Labyrinth,” which accompanied a curious photograph. But I’ll get to that in a moment. First, a bit about Bolaño’s following, which may be credited in part to his early exit from said world at the age of 50, by way of liver failure. For the uninitiated, “Gomez Palacio,” his posthumous New Yorker debut about a tormented writer interviewing for a teaching post in a remote Mexican town, tends to work a kind of magic. A ragged copy of the issue in which “Gomez Palacio” appeared caught critic Francine Prose in a waiting room: “I was glad the doctor was running late,” she wrote later in reviewing Last Evenings on Earth, “so I could read the story twice, and still have a few minutes left over to consider the fact that I had just encountered something extraordinarily beautiful and (at least to me) entirely new.”


The Internet and IRL

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Writers who have had the good fortune to have something published a few times a year invariably look to the Internet for its marketing possibilities. There are several avenues open on the Net for self-promotion, and my experience tells me this:

Facebook/Twitter – with almost a billion active users, you can easily get lost in that billion. Facebook ads? I've found that they draw "Likes" to your advertised writing projects but few readers/buyers.

Websites – same story, more or less. With some half a billion websites out there, you may get lost in the shuffle. The trick here is to link to other websites, blogs, etc. This increases your chances of being noticed in the ever-growing crowd.

Blogs – Ditto. Roughly the same number. Personal blogs will probably grow unnoticed, even with your well-written literary derring-do. Opt to blog in a ready-made community of readers/writers. Again this increases your chances of being noticed.

Whatever your mode, the thing to remember is that in order to attract readers/viewers, don't just talk about your product – let the "Net lurkers" get to know you – your interests, likes and dislikes.

Net surfers these days do so on mobile divices – while at stop lights, on the bus or train, sneaking peeks in class or at work, so get to the point quickly in your posts, and post often. The more posts, the better the odds of developing a noticed "brand."

To me, though, what this means is getting back to IRL (In Real Life). That is, make person-to person contacts: set up readings, talk to book groups, indie bookstores, libraries, shop owners who might carry your books, etc., on consignment. Always leave business cards. Get people's e-mail addresses. Once you have an IRL fan base, the Internet can help you stay connected and – possibly – grow your audience. 


Arts and Letters – Issue 26, Spring 2012

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I’ve become somewhat jaded about literary magazines, particularly those sponsored and published by the various colleges and universities, but not this time. This publication by Georgia College in Milledgeville, GA, contains some of the best writing by up and coming writers I’ve seen between print covers (btw, A&L also now offers an e-version).

This being a publication from a Southern college, I’m pleased to see pieces from all cultural angles and all subject matter, although death seems oddly prominent in this collection. Of particular interest to this reader is a full-tilt drama by James C. McKelly, a fiction piece by Courtney Marcello Norton, an interview with fiction writer, Liza Wieland, and a clever piece of poetry by Stephanie Ivanoff.

If I have a criticism, it’s a general one: some pieces seem overdone, length-wise, but that’s mostly a question of taste on my part. Kudos to writers and editors alike.


My rating: 17 of 20 stars