Scott D. Southard

Current State Contributor

Current State contributor Scott D. Southard is author of A Jane Austen DaydreamMaximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous Dare, My Problem With Doors, and Megan. Scott received his Master's degree in writing from the University of Southern California. More of his writing can be found at his blog, The Musings and Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard.

We writers tend to take short stories for granted. They are practice. They are something students do in a class. They are throwaway ideas for a collection or a blogsite. Most recently, publishers have been asking authors to create short stories as a means for introducing a novel to an audience, sort of an awkward attempt at a prequel. Check out this free short story, now come back and buy the book!

Reviewers love to talk about the sophomore slump. Whether it’s a musician, a film director or an author, critics can’t get enough of speculating if an artist will be able to hit it out of the park twice in a row. And it isn’t just critics paying attention. The follow-up to a successful debut can often make or break a career. That second work is where artists prove to their audience whether they are a one-hit wonder or someone worth following for years to come.

Writers are constantly drawing inspiration from the world around them. A story idea can come from almost anywhere: a painting, a historical event, or even other books. Michele Young-Stone’s latest novel draws its inspiration from musicians, specifically John, Paul, George and Ringo.

These days, it seems every writer, producer, and director out there wants to say something about the apocalypse. Whether it’s a TV show full of zombies or a movie about an alien invasion, you just can’t seem to escape the end of the world. "Station Eleven" by Emily St. John Mandel is also about the end of life as we know it, but don’t let that deter you. This book is about more than just survival and desperation. It’s about humanity itself.

Blogging is one of the greatest things to happen to the art of writing. In a blog, a writer is free to do whatever they want. They can experiment with form or subject matter, and build a readership without worrying about the approval of an agent or publisher. It can also be a launch pad for a career.

It’s pretty common to hear people complain about the impact TV has on society. It ruins young minds. It contributes to obesity. It shortens attention spans. But while there’s plenty of talk about how bad television is for humans, no one ever talks about the influence it has on books. Exhibit A: "The Rosie Effect" by Graeme Simsion, which is the sequel to his New York Times bestseller "The Rosie Project".

"Bird Box" by Josh Malerman scared the pants off me. Please don’t think I’m saying this lightly. While horror movies can terrify me for days, horror books rarely have the same punch for me. Usually, they feel predictable, formulaic, like something conjured from an old episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" minus the wit or surprises.  But "Bird Box" was different, and it was terrifying.

Life is a wondrous bit of magical happenstance. Sadly, we usually forget that fact in the mundanity of it. We go from day to day lost in worries about jobs, family, and the future. Hours and days slip by one after another with little thought or memory attached to them.

Literature is filled with stereotypes about us Michiganders. If, for example, a character in a book is from Ann Arbor, you can expect them to be smart. If they are from Detroit, they probably grew up rough and tumble in the inner city. They might be tough, but they will have a hidden heart of gold. And if a character is from northern Michigan or the UP, they’ll be poor, struggling, and have a strong attachment to hunting and beer. Also flannel. There will be lots of flannel.

I never got the whole Stephen King thing. Growing up in the 80's, it was impossible to avoid him. Everyone seemed obsessed with King’s books and a new one seemed to hit the shelves each month. Of course, it wasn’t just the literary world, there was also always a new television mini-series or film in the works too. Stephen King was everywhere.

Literature has always loved a good road trip. From Homer’s "Odyssey" to Tolkien’s adventures in Middle Earth to Kerouac’s "On The Road", the storyline has never left us. These road narratives often follow the same themes. The trip is usually a metaphor for growth and self-discovery. And when the hero returns home, he is a stronger person, more resolute, and ready to take on problems that would have vexed him before the trip.

Every year we drown in new holiday movies, books, and TV specials. And yet it is so rare that any of them last more than one season. They all disappear in time, discarded like used wrapping paper after Christmas morning.

What makes a story engrossing? Is it a surprising plot? A new twist? Or is it about the characters? Maybe a little quirk in their personalities that we find amusing? Is it an ability to see a bit of ourselves in the pages? These are some of the questions I’ve been asking myself since reading "We Are Not Ourselves" by Matthew Thomas.

Have you heard the story of Dorothy Gale from Kansas? Either you know her as the spirited young lady who is swept off to a magical land where she has to face a wicked witch; or you know her as a governmental tool used to attack a revolutionary leader with a green face. The first example is from the pen of Frank L Baum, the genius behind Oz; the second is by Gregory Maguire, author of the very popular "Wicked" series, which is arguably the most successful fan fiction ever.

“It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, collected the instruments of life around me that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.”

After the enormous success of her book "To Kill a Mockingbird", the world belonged to Harper Lee. She could have done anything, the possibilities were endless. And yet, all she wanted to do was escape to her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama and be left alone. For more than 40 years, the world could only speculate about this important and very silent American novelist. Was she writing? Was there maybe something more serious psychologically going on? Why did she hate the attention so much? It is because of Harper Lee’s long self-exile that makes "The Mockingbird Next Door", a new memoir by Marja Mills, so initially seductive.

American history is not always pretty. Sometimes it’s hard to accept that, but it is true. As Americans, there are blemishes there we don’t like the mirror to remind us of. For over 130 years, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain has held up that mirror and dared us to look at the reflection.

randomhouse.com/

It’s not an easy thing to pull off a twist in a story. And there are two important ground rules that must be followed if an author wants to attempt this difficult literary feat. First, there has to be enough of a surprise so that the readers jump, but also enough hints so that the readers don’t feel the author is pulling a fast one. For readers will go back to see if they missed something in the telling if a twist works. You can’t just have aliens arrive on Main Street, unless there have been conversations about weird lights in the sky earlier.

Paris in the 1920's and 1930's is the stuff of literary legend. It is hard for book lovers not to get lost in the mythology of it, imagining Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald discussing books over drinks at a club, while couples dance to the greatest jazz music. Francine Prose is one such author captivated by this period and in her new book “Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932,” she takes us through the fall of this great city, from its decadent and free heyday to its occupation under Nazi Germany. The book makes you feel like you are breathing the air of that city, walking those same rain-swept and romantic streets.

When your mind often swims in the written words of others, sometimes the water can get a bit muddy. You don’t mean for this to happen, but plots might intermingle in your head, characters might meet up even though they are in different stories and sometimes, honestly, you might point the finger at a possible murderer, not realizing right away that they are from another book and, of course, perfectly innocent. That is sometimes how my brain works.

www.chrismoore.com

“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” While some would take this quote from Shakespeare as merely insightful into human nature, author Christopher Moore takes it as gospel. Moore’s character named Pocket turns out is the very same fool from the great Bard’s “King Lear.” And this fool is the wisest person in any throne room.

Pocket first appeared in Christopher Moore’s wonderful satire “Fool,” reinventing the classic Shakespeare tragedy from the perspective of this intrepid character. In that novel, Pocket is the mastermind for the undoing of King Lear and his two wicked daughters.

Now Pocket has returned in a new book, “The Serpent of Venice.” In this comedy adventure Pocket is stuck in Venice, and it begins with him trapped in a cellar preparing to experience a slow and horrible death. From there the story grows to include mermaids, a best friend named Othello, a merchant named Shylock and a villain named Iago, who really doesn’t have a chance against a brain like Pocket’s.

We all leave a legacy after we shuffle off this mortal coil, but its size and influence isn’t decided by us. That power is in the hands of those we leave behind. Few writers have made as great an impact in literature as Franz Kafka.

“It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.” And with that poignant line, Gabriel Garcia Marquez begins his masterpiece “Love in the Time of Cholera.”

http://www.mdbell.com/inthehouse/

Sometimes the literary world can suffer from a case of The Emperor’s New Clothes. We all know this story made famous by Hans Christian Andersen, of the ridiculous Emperor tricked into wearing nothing and the underlings around him too afraid to point out that he is only in his underwear. In the mind of the Emperor he is adorned in the greatest attire, but in reality there isn’t much left for the imagination.

Courtesy - Library of America

Listen: One of my writing heroes is Kurt Vonnegut and for four years I had his home phone number sitting on my desk. That blessed number was a present from a friend of mine and every day it taunted me, teased me. When Vonnegut died in 2007, I threw the number away. I never had the guts to call it. So it goes.

Wayne State University Press

Reviewing a literary collection can feel a lot like reviewing a local talent show.

It can be hard to sum up the entire experience, since every act is unique, and it is unfair to compare the performers to each other; even though we all do it, no matter what the focus of the talent show is or the age of those involved. And like that talent show, literary collections tend to have their writers who take your breath away and make you lean forward in your chair, as well as the ones who make you wonder what you’re missing on TV. "The Way North" is a collection showcasing some of the leading voices in the Upper Peninsula literary movement.

HarperCollins

Believing in a destiny can be very addicting. It can add security, and maybe even help the world feel like less of a harsh place. But how do you tell the difference between destiny, luck and just the pure happenstance of living? In Matthew Quick’s new novel “The Good Luck of Right Now” he takes on this question through the character of Bartholomew Neil.

Grove Press

In Michigan one of the things we all accept are the supposed differences between the Upper Peninsula and the Lower Peninsula. The stereotypes haunt the residents of both regions: rural versus urban; those who are stressed versus those who are relaxed; those happy with money versus those happy in long underwear.

Literature is a living art form.

Yes, books are printed out of dead forests and each story comes with its own customized ending or demise, but that is never really the end. Mythologist Joseph Campbell used to argue that all stories are variations on one story, what he called the hero’s journey. I always thought of that as a beautiful theory, creating a nice feeling of unity to all tales, everywhere, no matter the culture of origin.

I like to picture literature as a great tree with hundreds of branches. If one of the branches on that literary tree was Charles Dickens, the next one branching off from it would be Donna Tartt.

Flickr - AlexFilee

We live in a loud world. Our movies are loud. Our TV shows are loud, and the commercials are even louder. And sadly now, even our books are loud, filled with as many explosions and gunshots as any blockbuster film could ever hope to have. So in a bombastic world like ours, how does a quiet book like “Our Picnics in the Sun” by Morag Joss find publication?

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