Maya Angelou, May She Rest in Peace

Max Avalon was saddened to hear about the death of Maya Angelou, revered author and poet, at 86 years of age. She had been in declining health for some time, and passed away in her North Carolina home on the morning of May 28, 2014. The cause of death is not immediately known.

Angelou is perhaps best known for her 1969 autobiography I know why the Caged Bird Sings, and for reciting her poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” at the first inauguration of President Bill Clinton, becoming only the second poet to read at an American president’s inauguration.

Angelou, nicknamed Maya by her brother, was born Marguerite Ann Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri on April 4, 1928. As a child, she moved between St. Louis and segregated Stamps, Arkansas. At the age of seven, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend, who was subsequently tried and jailed for only a day. Following his release, he was killed, and she refused to speak for the next five years, believing the power of her voice was what killed him.

After having moved to the Bay Area and shortly after high school, Angelou gave birth to a son, and she shuffled through various occupations to raise her child as a single mother. In 1951, despite the stigma of interracial marriages, she married Tosh Angelos, from whom she derived the latter portion of her pen name. Their marriage ended in 1954, and, for the next ten years, Angelou toured Europe as a singer and dancer, and later traveled to Cairo and Accra, Ghana, where she worked as a freelance writer.

Angelou befriended Malcom X during his trips to Ghana in the 1960’s, and in 1965, shortly before his assassination, he invited her to return to the United States and help him create a new civil rights organization. Angelou was lost and adrift until early 1968, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—also shortly before his assassination, on her fortieth birthday—asked her to organize a civil rights march.

Later that year, Angelou was challenged by Random House editor Robert Loomis to write an autobiography that could be considered a piece of literature. She released I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1969 to international acclaim. In it, Angelou flagrantly depicts growing up in the Jim Crow South and is chiefly concerned with overcoming long-lasting, pervasive trauma and resisting racial oppression. In 1971 she published her first book of poetry, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie, which was nominated for a Pulitzer.

Angelou became an able screenplay writer, composer, and writer of short stories, essays, poetry, TV documentaries, and numerous autobiographies. She was also a notable actor, appearing in both plays and television, and as visiting professor at various universities, including the lifetime Reynolds Professorship of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama in 2010.

Angelou leaves behind a legacy of unapologetic, nonvindictive growth out of turmoil. She managed to find her voice through the personal pain of her childhood and the imperative struggle for African American civil rights. Angelou’s voice, never limited to the page, is a resounding testimony to the raising of the self over the figurative, though very real cage of oppression.

She is survived by her son, Guy Johnson.

Happy Memorial Day, From Max Avalon

This weekend, we honor the men and women who gave their lives while serving in the U.S. armed forces. Memorial Day, formerly known as Decoration Day, began with people visiting cemeteries and memorials to “decorate” the graves of fallen servicemen and servicewomen. Max Avalon urges you to fly a flag this weekend, or—better—to leave one on the grave of a fallen veteran.

Should you find yourself with some free time on your hands this long weekend, pick up a good book or short story (Max Avalon has plenty!) and while away your extra hours reading. Memorial Day puts us in the mood for some great military and war fiction. Consider dipping into one of these worthy titles:

For the Literateur

The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien

A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway

War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy

For the Thrill-Seeker

The Hunt for Red October, Tom Clancy

Four Blind Mice, James Patterson

Final Flight, Stephen Coonts

For the Romantic

The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje

Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier

Atonement, Ian McEwan

For the Adventurous/Experimental

Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut

Catch-22, Joseph Heller

Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon

Happy Memorial Day  from Max Avalon and, as always, happy reading!

Max Avalon will be closed from Friday, May 23 through Monday, May 26 in observation of Memorial Day. While our offices are closed, we may not respond to inquiries, but please follow us on Twitter and Facebook to receive any news or updates.

An Easter Treat: The Literary Easter Egg

No Easter tradition is better loved than the egg hunt. Every year, children scurry through the house and yard, searching behind bushes and under chairs for eggs filled with goodies. After all, who doesn’t love a competitive adventure that has chocolate waiting at the end?

Grown-ups can find their own version of Easter egg hunts, although the treat at the end is (perhaps unfortunately) not candy. “Easter eggs” is the term used to refer to hidden content or messages. While Easter eggs originated in computer programs, they have since spread to other forms of media—video games, movies, artwork, and, of course, books. 

So, what exactly is a literary Easter egg? Some common examples are inside jokes, secret codes, and subtle references. Any sort of unexpected, veiled surprise could be considered an Easter egg.

Many great stories throughout years have been dotted with Easter eggs, although you might not have noticed them if you didn’t realize you were on the hunt. Here are a few examples.

  1. Through the Looking Glass: Lewis Carroll’s famed work features an acrostic poem that spells out “Alice Pleasance Liddell,” the name of the real girl who inspired the fictional Alice.
  2. A Series of Unfortunate Events: This children’s series by Daniel Handler, pen name Lemony Snicket, is full of twists and intrigue, creating the perfect atmosphere for hidden Easter eggs. For example, in A Hostile Hospital, a list of names features anagrams of both Daniel Handler and Brett Helquist, the book’s illustrator. Another anagram is made from the pen name Lemony Snicket for the name of one of the characters, Monty Kensicle.
  3. Star Wars: In some of the Star Wars books, Han Solo mentions that he uses the name Jenos Idanian as an alias. This is an anagram of Indiana Jones, who is played by Harrison Ford—the same actor who plays Han Solo in the Star Wars movies.
  4. Sarah Dessen’s novels: Popular YA author Sarah Dessen is known for setting her stories in recurring locations, and many of her characters run into each other across their books. Just to name a couple of examples, the protagonists of The Truth About Forever make a cameo appearance in Just Listen, and a character from This Lullaby is seen briefly in Lock and Key.
  5. The Great Gatsby: This literary classic opens with a poetic epigraph that begins, “Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her…” and is attributed to Thomas Parke D’Invilliers. While, generally, readers expect epigraphs to be quotes from other published authors, only true Fitzgerald fans would know that Thomas Parke D’Invilliers is actually a fictional character in Fitzgerald’s third novel, This Side of Paradise!
  6. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: When J.K. Rowling received a letter from a young fan named Natalie who had a terminal illness, Rowling wrote the girl a letter detailing the rest of Harry Potter’s storyline. Unfortunately, Natalie died before receiving the letter. Rowling named a minor character in her honor; Natalie is a young student who is sorted into Gryffindor at the beginning of the book.

These are only a few examples of the various forms that Easter eggs may take in writing. Hopefully they provide inspiration for the kind of “treats” you can hide in your writing.

Easter eggs are beloved by readers because of the sense of fun and discovery they deliver. Entertain and challenge yourself by weaving hidden surprises through your writing as you create a literary Easter egg hunt of your own.

Happy hunting, and happy Easter!

Max Avalon will be closed from Friday, April 17 through Monday, April 20. While our offices are closed, we may not respond to inquiries, but please follow us on Twitter and Facebook to receive any news or updates.

On Creativity vs. Credibility

Alternate Title: The Difference between the Unbelievable and the Unbelievably Good

Every author wants to create something truly great and unique. A creative mind allows us to dream up worlds humans have yet to explore on the pages of their favorite books; hard work and dedication brings those worlds to them. But, there’s a fine line between the “unbelievably good” and the “unbelievable,” and we’re going to take a look at it today.

To start with, let your mind explore the possibilities. Take a moment to walk through your world in your mind. Writing down a few details pertaining to your world may help you weave those details into your story later on; if you can see it, you can show it to your readers. Does it have a dark history, one full of violence and war? Is it a new settlement, where men are testing the boundaries of the land as they test the boundaries of one another?

If you need to, and many times you may, try doing some research. You can’t research every aspect of your book, because research would overrun your creativity and leave you with no time to do the actual writing. But, if you can research some aspects of your world, your characters, or your story, it may lend credibility to your work. Is your main character a gunslinger? You might research topics like proper maintenance for your character’s gun of choice, or how to reload it as efficiently as possible. Do you have a scientist for a character? You might want to learn about your character’s field of study. A little bit of research goes a long way in the credibility of your story.

Remember one of the biggest rules in life: everything has a consequence. Good or bad, consequences are the reaction to anything we do or say. If we choose to break a law, we run the risk of getting caught and facing jail time or having to pay fines. Smiling at someone may, in turn, cause them to smile back at us and lighten their mood. Working outside for hours in the heat will leave us feeling exhausted.

In the same way, your world should include consequences. Your hero should not be able to press on with unflagging strength. He should tire—physically, emotionally, and perhaps spiritually. Firing a gun enough times should cause the gun to run out of ammunition. It isn’t believable if the strength and the ammunition run on ceaselessly. Supplies run out; people get tired. We are imperfect, and we cling to characters and storylines with imperfections because we relate to them.

Your characters must live with their consequences, too. If they break one of your world’s rules, how will they be punished? If they do a good deed for another character, what is their reward? All of this is up to you—but remember to infuse your story with some of that balance.

In the end, we would urge you to let your creativity reign. Let your imagination run wild. Just keep it within reason and concoct a world your readers can believe in; you’ll be surprised at how much they’ll want to believe in it if you do.

By KLM

On Showing vs. Telling

As a form of artistic expression, writing can be incredibly powerful. It has the ability to change minds, to break down barriers, and to transport readers to entirely new and wonderful places. In order to harness these powers, writers have a few principles to keep in mind. One of the phrases that occasionally come to mind as editors read submissions is this: “Show, don’t tell.” What do we mean by this?

Many people outside of the field of writing view it as saying exactly what is going on in written form. They write reports and memos, send emails to coworkers, and type out conversational texts to friends. To those of us within the field, writing is so much more than simple communication; it is truly an art form. This is no exception in action-adventure fiction. Crafting one’s work in the right way can and does captivate audiences of readers beyond imagination. Simply put, readers long for authors to describe events, reactions, senses, and every other element of their books in place of merely stating what happens.

Take, for example, the following sentence:

“I was so mad that I couldn’t stand to look at them anymore.”

How could it be transformed in such a way as to show readers what’s going on instead of telling them? Something along these lines might work a bit better:

“Burning anger coursed through me as I slammed the door between us.”

Many different phrases exist with the same or similar meanings—it’s one of the many beauties of written expression and its ability to be manipulated in countless ways. The point of the “show, don’t tell” exercise is to put your readers in the scene you’re writing. Make them feel, more than read, the torrent of chaotic emotions steamrolling your character. Open their eyes to the view from your character’s eyes. Force them to inhale the scents assaulting your character’s nostrils, make their skin prickle against the breeze dancing through your character’s hair, and let them hear the chirp of the crickets in the late afternoon haze.

Are you having trouble describing something? Take a minute. Close your eyes and imagine the scene as you want it to happen. Ignoring everything else, start writing down your observations. What stands out to you? What does the view look like? What can you smell or hear? Lose yourself for a moment to the experience—and then write it down. If you can experience it, then your readers will have a better time experiencing it and will appreciate it all the more.

“Show, don’t tell” is often uttered in this industry. But, carefully crafted sentences and phrases can put your readers in the places of your characters, and the utterance can be avoided altogether. If you’re not sure that you’ve accomplished a “show,” try reading it to someone who will listen and give you an honest response. Better yet, let them read it for themselves. It will pay off in the end; your editors will thank you for it, and so will your readers.

The staff at Max Avalon eagerly awaits your short story submissions. We look forward to experiencing your story through the eyes of your characters.

By KLM

Happy Valentine’s Day from Max Avalon!

The staff of Max Avalon wishes you a happy Valentine’s Day!

We will be out of the office Friday, February 14, through Monday, February 17, Presidents’ Day. While submissions are still welcomed, responses and other business will resume as usual on Tuesday, February 18.

Have a wonderful weekend full of delightful reading and time spent with loved ones as we all celebrate Valentine’s Day and Presidents’ Day together.

While you’re here, remember to check out our latest releases, all available on Amazon now. Just head over to “Books by Max” and browse away!

Max Avalon Presents: John Biggs’ “Messages”

It’s a jungle out there – and that’s exactly what Karma finds when she escapes from the hospital in search of her boyfriend and his family. When the streets belong to the wolves and the few remainders of humanity have forgotten what it means to be human, how long can a girl survive with only a glass knife for protection and the hope of salvation for guidance?

02-09-2014_Biggs Cover

Walk through the end of days with Karma; check out “Messages” by John Biggs on Amazon today.