I’ve just guested again at Litopia, the online writers’ colony and community. Each week they have a YouTube show, Pop-Up Submissions, where five manuscripts are read and critiqued live on air by literary agent Peter Cox @agentpete and a guest, or sometimes two. This time the other guest was longtime Litopian Annie Summerlee @anniesummerlee , who has published short stories in a range of online publications.
The format is simple. Five manuscripts, each with a short blurb. We hear the opening pages, then discuss how they’re working – exactly as agents and commissioning editors would consider a submission. And there’s now an added goody – each month, the submission with the most votes is fast tracked to the independent publisher Head of Zeus, and several writers have already been picked up after appearing on the show. (So we take our critiquing very seriously… no pressure.)
As you can see, there is masses to learn from the chat room comments alone. The audience might not always know why something doesn’t work, but they know when they’re engaged, or confused, or disappointed, or laughing at things they shouldn’t, or eager to read more. It’s our job as trusty hosts to pinpoint the whys.
We talk about:
Blurbs that don’t set up the story’s unique intriguing world, or tell us about the characters, or set up the story’s fascinating central dilemma.
Titles that are too general, or set the wrong tone, or not memorable enough, or just right.
Where the author’s real interest is – how a sparkling line can help the author play to their true strengths.
Openings that dawdle too long in setting and description or characters who clearly won’t be important.
Whether it’s too soon to veer into back story and how much to include.
Language that inadvertently comes across as comic.
Misconceived opening scenes and whether the author would be better starting with a different kind of situation.
Whether a novel sounds like a thriller – or something else! And what that ‘something else’ might be.
Find the full show here. And if you’ve got a manuscript you’d like critiqued, apply here.
How do you become a fiction writer? Some people have formal training; some never do. They create their own training, from their temperament and inner drive. That’s the case with my guest today, Nick Padron, a musician and composer, and also a writer of scripts and fiction. His latest novel, a thriller Where Labyrinths End, is published this week.
Nick, my first question has to be this: how did you make careers in all these disciplines?
One at a time, really. I think creative people usually handle more than one artistic discipline. Actors paint, writers play music. Have you seen Bob Dylan’s paintings? Amazing. It’s pretty common.
I haven’t even heard of Bob Dylan’s paintings! Once we’ve finished talking, I will hasten to Google.
In my case, making music and literature came at different stages. Growing up, rock and roll music was all I cared about. Elvis and The Beatles were everything I wanted to be. It could’ve been a form of escape from what was happening around me as a boy in Havana, Cuba—which eventually broke up my family, and my mother and I ended up political exiles in New York City.
I never consciously set out to be a formal musician or a writer per se. Formal education was not for me. I learned these disciplines by ear, by imitating and osmosis, and sheer will, I guess.
Imitation and osmosis… I recognise that. If an artform appeals, we pick it up and try it. It’s an appetite.
It wasn’t until my 30s that the urge to write stories came to me. By then, I had already become a professional musician and composer, tried my hand at comedy sketches for TV, even cowritten a movie script. I had developed the kind of personal discipline needed to write—the learning and patience necessary to complete a novel.
I either work on music or on writing prose. To me, they’re all-consuming practices, requiring every ounce of creative focus.
How much crossover is there? Do the sensibilities or skills for one inform your work in the others?
These are very good questions. I don’t think there is a definitive answer to them. How much time I spend on each depends on priorities, really. The skills and sensitivities in both art forms do cross over. Putting words to a song is very close to writing poetry, and poetry very close to prose.
In music, perhaps the physical demands of playing an instrument are not found in writing, but arranging music, particularly the longer works—soundtracks, musicals, operas—does share similar demands. The rhythm of a story is not unlike that of a musical composition. Modern music, though, does diverge. The minimalism of 21st century popular music, where practically no musical instruments are used, all are computerized, moves the creative effort away from, say, the organic work of language as an instrument. Personally, I’ve only written words with a word processor, so I’m not one to talk. But, so far, I think technology has been far more influential on music than it’s been on writing. Then again, had Tolstoy had a laptop, he would’ve probably written four War and Peace sequels…
For sure. And if he was around now, his publisher would have demanded it.
So were your family creative or are you an outlier?
I am an outlier. Although, looking back, I realize my mother was a very creative person, in her own way. Her father, who died before I was born, was involved with a theatre troupe and had a passion for opera, and co-owned a movie theatre.
Is any of your writing autobiographical?
I do insert autobiographical touches in my work. You can’t escape it. Particularly when building characters, you see people you’ve known in them.
Would you ever write a memoir?
I don’t think writing a memoir would be fun—to me. But one never knows, maybe one day I’d want to, but not yet.
What’s the distinctive signature of a Nick Padron novel and short story?
I’m not aware of having a distinctive signature. I suppose there’s one. When I write, I consciously think of the action and settings in cinematic terms. I like the idea of movie-like storytelling enhanced by straight prose.
I’m not opposed to prose for prose’s sake either, if it works. That’s why my three published novels could easily be turned into movies, and still be interesting reads. I have writer friends who have read my works and spotted in them what one might define as a personal ‘signature.’ I suppose the time will come when my ‘signature’ will become apparent even to me. Until then, I’ll let my friends tell me about it.
I note that Ernest Hemingway is a guiding light for you. You titled a novella It Tolls For Thee. One of your short stories is titled Papa’s Bastard Son. Tell me about the importance of Ernest.
My mother told me Hemingway and I met once in Cojímar, a coastal town near Havana where my family owned a house. There was a restaurant there, I think it was called La Terraza, where Hemingway and my parents went for lunch sometimes. One afternoon, when I was five or six, my parents took me to lunch and old Hemingway happened to be there with some people. My mother said I kept running around all over the place, making a racket, and as I flew past Hemingway’s table he said something to me—probably told me to shut up and go sit down. Of course, I don’t remember any of it. But having annoyed the Old Master became a family anecdote.
I bet it did. That’s hard to beat.
There was a time too, it seemed everywhere I went Hemingway had been there before. Cuba, Key West, Pamplona, Madrid, even Venice. It was inevitable that I became interested in Hemingway’s work. Eventually, I read all of his books.
One of your novels, The Cuban Scar, has a pseudonym – Gabriel Hemingway.
The Gabriel Hemingway pseudonym idea came to me after I finished my first novel. I remembered Elvis Costello’s strategy to get attention when he first started out, changing his name to ‘Elvis’. So, I tried doing something like that with my first book. I used the pseudonym of Gabriel (after Garcia Marquez) and Hemingway, hoping the book would stand out in the marketplace. It didn’t. So, I’ve used my own name since.
There are other writers I find inspiring, Don DeLillo for instance. I’ve read most of his books. Mind you, I’m not a voracious reader. I wish I was. I do read a lot every day though, news, magazines, stuff online, fiction and nonfiction. But I could go for months without reading a complete book, probably busy with music. Sometimes I get hooked to a particular writer or a style or a period and spend a lot of time reading. When I was a young, I read the classics while riding in the NYC subways, Robinson Crusoe, Three Musketeers, Treasure Island, Moby Dick, those books. Later on, the Russians, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev; modern classics, Fitzgerald, Kerouac, Salinger, Lee. I had my Bukowski period, my Vargas Llosa period, my Oscar Hijuelos period. I suppose there’ll be others to come.
I saw in an interview that your first attempt at a novel eventually defeated you.
Yes, I did give up on my first try at a novel. I made what seems to be a classic beginner’s mistake, biting more than I could chew.
This is very familiar.
I wrote around a half million words. Now I realize, as a self-taught artist, that this unfinished novel was really my basic training as a novelist. I made every mistake a writer can make, over and over, until I learned how it’s done.
I did the same, though I eventually lashed mine into shape. But I wrote several simpler books before I was ready to tackle the first one for real. Would you ever go back to yours?
I’m not sure I could finish that first novel any more. But I’ve used passages from it. My first published short story was taken from the unfinished novel.
Nothing is ever wasted, is it?
Some of your work features magic realism. How do you use it? Why does it appeal?
If anyone finds ‘magical realism’ in my writing, it would only be in the prose and not in the story itself. A critic called one of my short stories “realistic magic.” I think I know what he meant. For instance, in Where Labyrinths End, the protagonist, Symphony Messina, is abducted and locked up in a dungeon-like place where she discovers she’s pregnant. The passage has a magical realism-type of atmosphere. But the ‘magical’ quality is all in the character’s head, not in the character’s personal experience. If you have a character who is superstitious or very religious or given to flights of fancy, the writing might acquire a supernatural aspect when inside the character’s mental universe. But my stories are set in reality, and any resemblance to magical realism is solely in the reader’s take of it.
What are you working on now?
I have several stories going at the same time, as usual. It’s something like my reading habits, reading two or three books at a time. This year has been a busy one for me. Three books of mine have been published between November 2020 and December 2021. One was a collection of short fiction, another was a novel set during the Spanish Civil War, and of course, Where Labyrinths End, my first thriller. I have plans to finish two or three other books. One would be a sequel to Labyrinths. Hopefully very soon.
How do you become a fiction writer? For some people, it’s almost by accident. That’s how it was for Steve Zettler, but after a series of cosy mysteries, another series of thrillers and a play, he seems to have found a good groove. His latest title, Careless Love, puts romance and thriller together, and is released today.
Roz Steve, you’re a photographer, actor and author. And according to your website you have an even wider CV. In the great tradition of adventurous arty folk, you’ve done an encyclopaedia of jobs. To pick a few: bricklayer, bartender. And that’s just the Bs.
Steve Ha! I read this as BS.
Roz I had a feeling you would.
Let’s continue being predictable. Those jobs must have given you great material.
Steve It’s been an interesting ride, which has left me penniless on more than one occasion. I’ve always travelled in whatever direction the wind is blowing, even from an early age. There’s never been anything that vaguely resembled a master plan; I’ve never once considered where I might be, what I might be doing, at age 40 or 50. Thus the endless list of assorted occupations – I get bored easily and don’t like going in reverse, so it’s always been something different, a new way to pay the bills. It’s put me in close proximity with a whole gaggle of very interesting people.
In the early 70s no one had come up with the term PTSD (they were still calling it shell-shock), but if they had labelled it PTSD I could have been one of their poster-boys. Seventeen months’ combat duty in Vietnam had left my brains resembling scrambled eggs and I found photography to be the perfect escape. I was a freelancer in NYC and it allowed me to live a life where I spoke to almost no one. It took me about seven years to become a socially acceptable animal.
The downside of freelancing; I was broke most of the time and needed to tend bar, drive a taxi etc to pay the bills. But photography forced me to become a consummate observer, which I’ve been to this day. So with all of the twists and turns my life has taken I’ve been able to study a very divergent assortment of people and landscapes. And I’ve never ceased to be fascinated by what I see and hear.
I ended up doing a lot of photography for theatre companies and taking headshots for actors. One theatre company was doing a children’s show and an actor injured himself. They were in need of a warm body and asked me to take his place. They neglected to tell me that the Handsome Prince was blind as a bat and we would have a sword fight, but I lived through it and this kicked off my acting career.
So I was now a new person with a new title; the wind had taken me elsewhere. I threw all my black and white negatives in the trash and sold my cameras.
And by the way, acting is a fabulous training ground for writers. I’ve often suggested just that to fellow writers; take an acting class, get to know your characters from the inside out, live their lives.
Roz Yes! I’ve often thought this while polishing dialogue. You have to know what it’s like to be the character. Also, know why it’s good to be them, especially if their actions aren’t nice. But I’ve never had the chance to discuss this with an actor. Glad you raised this.
Steve Anyway, I worked as an actor for a number of years in NYC and Los Angeles. My wife was an actor as well but when we moved to LA she began to write. Her first novel was published by Simon and Schuster, and her agent was the infamous Irving ‘Swifty’ Lazar. We moved to an island off the coast of Connecticut. The wind just blew us back east. But there wasn’t a lot there, acting-wise, so I started to write. And this will annoy the hell out of every writer who reads this: I simply gave my first novel to my wife’s agent and he got me a two-book deal. I remember thinking, holy crap, I’m going to have to write another book.
Roz Holy crap, indeed. So that’s how writing became ‘the thing’?
Steve I never did give up acting and photography altogether; I bought another camera when things went digital. I now live in Philadelphia. My passion for stage acting has left me but I work with young filmmakers getting their careers off the ground and the occasional independent film shooting in the area. It’s more of a desire to mix it up with the younger generation than anything else. Their energy is contagious, even though the money’s short.
Photography-wise, I generally do stuff for free, unless it’s a commercial entity. Since everything is now digital it’s easy enough for me to help an organization, or author, or actor, with photos and send jpegs. There’s no longer the cost of film or the annoyance of darkroom work, so why not help people?
Roz Were your family artistic in any way?
Steve Not remotely. My dad owned a bar/restaurant and we lived above it. It was in the county north of Philadelphia and was basically a country inn. It was a very rural and very charming place along the Delaware River and essentially a shack-up spot for New York writers, actors, directors and producers. Some crazy people drifted through when I was a kid. I would never mention who spent the night there, but I still have the guest registry from 1936 through 1965. Regular customers at the restaurant included Pearl Buck, John Dos Passos, Robert Frost, James Michener, Oscar Hammerstein and the like. I was much too young to know who they were, let alone converse with them, but they attracted quite a bit of attention when they walked in for dinner. It seemed like the life I wanted to live.
Roz What would you tell your 16-year-old self?
Steve I’m afraid the 16-year-old Stevie never listened to anyone or took anyone’s advice. He’d look at me and say. ‘What the hell do you know?’
I’ve made some really bad decisions in my life and had to live with them. In a strange way that has become a blessing. I don’t lie to myself. I guess if I told Stevie anything it would be to slow down a little. There’s a wonderful Billy Joel song called ‘Vienna’. I’d tell him to listen to it over and over. Unfortunately it wasn’t around when Stevie was 16.
Steve I really enjoy the format, both in reading and writing. You know from the beginning who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy, and most likely, by the end, the good guy is going to crush the bad guy.
I love the ride of a thriller. You can go wherever you want. People walk into the story out of nowhere and you have to deal with them; give them a life and a purpose for being there. You can’t disregard them. You can’t tell them to get the hell out of your book because they won’t. They stay there and pester you until you give them that purpose. I think writing thrillers is as much of a joy ride for the writer as it is (hopefully) for the reader.
Roz What’s the characteristic flavour of a Zettler thriller?
Steve I take nothing too seriously. My protagonists are always self-deprecating and I can’t seem to prevent myself from pointing out some of the lunacy that exists in the world. Hypocrites are often my favourite target.
Roz What’s the Steve writing method?
Steve I have to admit, I’m not a consummate writer. I can go a long time without writing a thing and it doesn’t bother me. I don’t have that burning desire to write. My wife does; I don’t. At some point I seem to get visited by a spirit that tells me to write and if that spirit is off fishing in Alaska I’m not going to write a damn thing. But then the spirit shows up and gives me the first sentence of a novel and informs me where the novel’s going to end and tells me to fill in the middle. If I don’t have that first sentence, I’m not going anywhere.
And interestingly the first sentence never remains anchored as the first sentence, but it always shows up in the novel somewhere; it becomes the driving metaphor.
Roz You also write crossword mysteries under the name Nero Blanc, with your wife, Cordelia Frances Biddle.
Steve There are 12 Nero Blanc titles. Each book contains a series of crossword puzzles – solve the puzzle, solve the crime. Crossword puzzles are black and white, thus the pen name; nero is black in Italian, blanc is white in French.
The mysteries fall into the ‘cosy’ category, meaning no swear words, no sexual situations. There’s a cute couple who solve the crimes, with sort of a Nick and Nora relationship. They have a lot of fun with one another, which is pretty much how Cordelia and I travel through life. More often than not at book signings people would say they didn’t bother with the puzzles; they only read the books as romance novels.
Roz Doh. Why didn’t I spot that?
Steve Cordelia and I had, for quite a while, been scouting for something we could write together; anything, travel books, cookbooks, whatever. Remember we were on this island with a lot of time. We were having lunch one day, sharing the crossword puzzle, when she got so frustrated she threw down the pen and said ‘Someone should just kill this guy’, referring to the person who had edited the puzzle. We were off and running.
Roz So it’s good, working with your spouse?
Steve Cordelia and I worked together as actors; that’s how we met. I’ve always maintained that acting teachers should understand that if they assign students a scene from La Ronde, those students are going to end up sleeping with one another to properly research their characters.
But once again, this acting background was invaluable when it came to collaborating as writers. As actors we had become very comfortable with taking direction. Directors can be very blunt. Actors need to listen and make it work, no matter how biting the criticism might be. Often Cordelia and I would act out dialogue scenes and write them as we had improved them. And the main characters were simply a reflection of our own relationship. We had a great time writing Nero Blanc together, but eventually wanted to get back to the swear words and sexual situations.
Roz Your latest novel, Careless Love, is published by Vine Leaves Press. How did you end up there?
Steve My thrillers and mysteries were published by big houses, and quite often, as I’m sure you know, literary fiction and poetry get the short end of the stick from the big boys. And their editors can be somewhat, shall we say, mercenary? They want you to stay on the horse you rode in on.
But it seemed with each book the editors became more and more hands off. I wanted a smaller, more personal, literary publisher, so that’s the direction I went. Vine Leaves Press was the first to respond to my query. They did so very quickly, which was tremendously encouraging. They were very positive, and I have to say they’ve proven to be far more supportive than my previous editors and publishers. Other publishers have since contacted me about Careless Love. There is something wonderful about being able to say, ‘Sorry, that ship has sailed’.
Roz What inspired Careless Love?
Steve It came from my soul. It’s been bouncing around in there for decades. The spirit finally visited me, gave me the first sentence, and told me how the novel was going to end.
Roz What would readers of your previous work recognise in Careless Love?
Steve Oddly, it does almost have that thriller format, and I think readers of my previous work would enjoy it for that reason. But I would call it literary romantic suspense – is that a category? It is inspired by true events. Every incident in Careless Love has happened to me or someone I’ve been very close to.
Roz Why that title?
Steve It was inspired by a blues song written in 1921 by WC Handy. It’s been recorded by almost every blues singer since, but Madeleine Peyroux’s cover just brought it all home for me. There are some blues songs that really must be sung by a woman to hit the mark, and this one of them. It’s just two words, but they can be interpreted so many ways. My novel is very much a woman’s story. Like the song, I’ve interpreted careless love to mean that love is careless, it will grab your heart, rip it out and stomp on it if you’re not careful. But when you’re deeply in love it’s not so easy being careful.
Roz What’s coming next?
Steve I’m halfway through a memoir focused on the year I was eight years old, discovering my great aunt dead in her bedroom, living above my dad’s restaurant and rubbing elbows with the celebs out front and the down-and-outers who worked in the kitchen. It was a wonderful way to grow up.
Roz Rich material indeed. Give me some unzettling final words.
Steve A seminal moment was the day I returned to the US after my months of combat duty in Vietnam. As the other Marines filed into the terminal I dropped onto my knees and kissed the tarmac. This brought on a fair amount of laughter from the others, but I stayed there, on my knees, for some time. Eventually a lieutenant joined me and did the same thing.
He then said, ‘You know we’re a couple of lucky bastards, you and me’.
I said, ‘I’d guess we all are, sir’.
He responded by saying, ‘No, you and I are luckier that the rest’.
My guest this week says his entire novel was triggered by just one song – Nobody Wins by Kris Kristofferson. He’d had the idea rolling around in his head as a vague kind of fancy, but the Kristofferson song was a sudden technicolor epiphany, making sense of the half-formed ideas, giving him a final scene. And after a lot of thrashing, editing and a good deal of other music, he has a psychological thriller about a group of guys who decide to take a voyage of self-discovery to a deserted island. If you’ve followed this series for a while you’ll recognise his name as he’s been here before – he is Andrew Lowe, and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
My guest this week is one half of a collaborative writing team known as ‘Christoph Martin’ – which is actually the two minds of Libby O’Loghlin and Christoph Martin Zollinger. Together they are writing the Expansion series of four political thrillers, and music became a common language that helped them keep their ideas in tune. Spanish-language pop from Nicky Jam helped establish some of the locations; Benjamin Clementine suggested a plot twist; and when a character faces terminal illness, David Bowie’s final album Black Star was a guiding light. They’re on the Red Blog with their Undercover Soundtrack.
My guest this week is the author of Girl on a Train. No, another girl, another train. I first came across her work when she wrote very entertainingly about how her psychological thriller had been mistaken by readers for the much-hyped title by Paula Hawkins. And they were happy to have found her, for she gained many new fans. I then discovered she used to be a musician, and has played in all the major London concert halls, so I had to enquire whether music played a role in her writing. It certainly does – she has written a haunting, thoughtful post about the music that helped her layer her work with complexity, loss and betrayal, especially movie soundtracks like Blue Velvet and Let The Right One In. She is AJ Waines and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
My guest this week had talismanic pieces of music in his mind while he wrote his debut thriller. Indeed he says the music was such a guiding force that he cannot imagine how anyone reading the book could not hear it too. He chose anthems to embody his characters, their state of mind, their dilemmas and the way they change in the story’s events. They are protest songs, wry looks at characters who are abandoning their principles and songs of obsession and downfall. I’m also delighted to report that he includes Peter Gabriel – one of my long-time favourite musicians. He is Paul Sean Grieve and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
My guest this week says his novel was written in a trance. He rented an attic from a musician, who he could hear practising in the rooms downstairs, brought along a cageful of finches and set them free to fly around him as he typed. You’ll see from the title why they seemed like a good idea. These avian muses were also treated to the soundtracks of several movies – Rosemary’s Baby, The Fog and Creepshow – which doubtless helped them get further into character. When he needed to crank up the intensity, there would be two songs howling at once – the radio at one end of the room, classical music at the other. My guest reports that sometimes his birds got tired and stared at him. This endearing aural vandal is Josh Malerman, his novel is the post-apocalyptic thriller Bird Box, and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
My guest this week describes his writing as a constant state of striving – to achieve the same visceral punch of great music. His books come to him that way too – protagonist, thread and plot in one hit. In fact I’ve actually seen this thunderbolt descend; I was with him on a course one day when he told me he’d just overheard a conversation that gave him an entire plot and its characters in an instant. After that comes the hard work, of course, and music helps him return to that state of fever. The novel he is talking about this week is the first in a crime series, set in the final years of Moorish rule in Spain, and its soundtrack is full of sweat, guitars, lutes and bass. He is David Penny and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack.
My guest this week says she always begins a project by assembling a sequence of music tracks. To start with, she notices every word and note, but after a while they settle into a familiar environment – a mental writing room that claims her attention and tells her it’s time to immerse. The novel she’ll be sharing with us is set in 1938, so her soundtrack is a mix of her own favourite contemporary songs to help capture the mood, and then a lot of material from the period of her story to conjure the historical period. She is NYT bestselling thriller author Rebecca Cantrell, and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.