Getting Buzz

I was recently on The Business Buzz with host Jeff Sherman and Marty Keena to discuss aspects of writing a novel including character and plot.


Modesty, Chastity, Young Love and the taliban

Tom Avitabile | SetaraRight smack dab in the middle of editing my fourth book The Devil’s Quota – which is set in New York City, upper New York State, Canada and Afghanistan – I felt I had constructed a beautiful love story between an American G.I. and a local Afghan girl. It was all very lovely and very soft around the edges. I was positive that I had captured the true euphoria of that first spark of love, infusing into the relationship the electric sensation two soul mates tingle with every time they meet. I topped off that exchange of energy with its titillating aftermath and breathless anticipation of their next encounter. I even threw in a dash of the fanciful ‘what if’ and the ‘what when’ dreams that occupy their every idle moment.

From a plot perspective, I had set their encounter at the community well, literally at the most nurturing and central location of a war-ravaged, dirt poor Afghan farm village. I had Sgt. Eric Ronson, the perfect male hero for a love interest; a strong, strapping young warrior buck.  As for my femme extraordinaire I had an incredibly radiant, simple farm girl, Setara.  I even had over-arching symbolism in their meeting across not only the walls of the well but the one million walls between their cultures.

So I had it, the forbidden love, fighting to survive against the prejudices, mores and  traditions of the times in which they live.  And then….

The burqa happened.

Or more correctly my editor, Sue Rasmussen happened …  to come across in her research that, according to the taliban, which is known to shoot you if you do not comply, women have to wear a burqa in public. That means fully covered, without the tiniest slit for the eyes! However, the inherent slapstick comedy of women walking into walls and bumping into things is avoided with a dark mesh over the eyes. (See, the Taliban isn’t totally unreasonable.)

But I, however, walked right into a wall. The whole “their eyes met” gone, the descriptives like “the radiance on her face” gone, the insightful “he could see her attempt to suppress her elation over seeing him,” gone!

Conclusion: There is absolutely nothing on the romantic attractor side of a story if the taliban were to write it. One of many good reasons never write a Taliban-based love story, because in a world lousy with taliban, all marriages are arranged. The young-ins have absolutely no say with whom they shall grow old. In short, romance, as we would artfully construct it, becomes a charge listed on an order of execution, read aloud before the stoning to death of the young girl.  

So you can see that the Western-accepted, innocent, G-rated acts like two kids smiling at one another, God forbid holding hands, a scandalous peck on the cheek or the public humiliation and spectacle caused by him merely gazing upon her naked face, in the taliban world, puts a crimp in my romantic story. It is also a fatal AK47 bullet wound through my entire book because I need that relationship in Afghanistan as the emblematic inciting incident for the rest of the story. Those characters also become major players as the story unfolds.

At this point, I’ve got a lot riding on Afghanistan and it’s being spoiled by a thin veil of mesh fabric. That means my two love interests will pass in the night or at least the darkness of the taliban-imposed morality police.

So I took my case to the Google World Court and I looked up images of Afghan women and right there in vivid, living color, in stills taken recently, are images of many women in burqas, but then my heart stopped, almost like my male character’s, when I saw the one woman among them in the hijab. Then, I found many photographs of hijab-clad women among the populace.

The hijab saved my life.

The hijab, more like a loosely worn scarf around the head, allowing full facial features rescued my love story. Now I actually have photographic proof that hijabs and burqas can co-exist with men in the same public space.

Saved! Book back on course. Everything’s good with me. Not so much with the women living under oppression though. Hmmmm, maybe that’s another book?

Surfing the Point of Interest

Avitabile - Surfing the point of interestThe Point of Interest is the ‘edge of a seat’, the energy that starts to ‘turn the page’ before the last sentence of the one being read is complete, it’s the ‘Shhhh’ when an engrossed member of the audience doesn’t want to be distracted by someone talking in a theater. If as the writer you create enough points of interest then together they define a wave. If we are good at what we write then the reader becomes the surfer catching the edge of that wave, constantly being supported and moved along in perfect balance along the leading edge, as the plot roils below them. At that moment the surfer, as well as the reader, is totally involved, totally focused on continuing the ride for as long as they can, totally attuned to the story. One of my observations on art, literature, film and all things theatrical, is that they play out in the extreme reaches of reality and human existence.

A story that does not approach the outer edge of a human situation holds less drama. (because we surf at the edge of the wave) There is no drama in washing socks, but there is drama in washing the socks on Mars in a sonic washing machine that’s powered by a thermonuclear reactor – because we’ve taken a common, everyday chore and we’ve pushed it to an extreme. To hold an audience, reader or listener at the point of Interest we must strive to drive all characters, all plot lines all narrative to approach the extremes of the human condition or extremes in behavioral patterns.

So when you’re looking for that MacGuffin, when you’re looking for that thing that the story seems to be about but isn’t, it’s very tempting to go to an extreme, somewhere outside the norm that lies just beyond what reasonable people would think of, consider or accept. It’s in this area where you get to write the rules, it’s in this area where you get to bring the readers to a place where they haven’t been before. Is that the primary part of any story? Maybe not the whole story, but it’s certainly one of the guardrails of the plot. That unchartered territory can be internal within a character, in their deepest darkest recesses or external to the character, where the world or environment forces dramatic action.

So in my fourth book, I have a plot that deals with an aspect of human trafficking. However, the notion of an entire underground economy, complete with an international infrastructure, designed to force people into indentured servitude, slavery or out and out sexual exploitation is already an extreme place to write about, but a general awareness of this horrible endeavor is out there and somewhat known in our culture. Therefore, going back to my rule, I’ve picked up on a particular part of human trafficking, which is not pretty much on anybody’s radar. It is the extreme of the extreme, an aspect not generally known. The question is: Is it too far? Is it so far out there as to be beyond the willing suspension of belief? Will it cause my reader to wipeout and lose the edge of the wave? 

That’s a big challenge that I’m struggling with right now in book four, The Devil’s Quota

AvitabileTom Avitabile

When you shouldn’t write…

I get a lot of people inside government, the scientific community and law enforcement agencies who “tell” me things off the record. You know, “You didn’t hear this from me but…”

Well, last week I got a tip on something, I’ll call it “Installation X,” a really good piece of reality that would make a beautiful plot point and revelation. For me revelation is as important as a tight story. I use “fiction” in my books to plant a few seeds on things that governments and media soft pedal or aggressively ignore into obliteration.

So I get this information that I could center my entire 4th book on. A juicy, real, almost unbelievable fact that I can fictionalize. Except, last week I got a note that asked I forget what I was told. The reason? Apparently, it’s hotter than even the person who shared it with me thought it was.

Professional dilemma: respect my source or go for it? Well, I decided to not only respect my source but also join into the spirit of our national secrets, which is mainly to keep them secret. So I took a deep breath and moved on. This happened with my first book, when I deduced, based on available technology, a technological process that could protect the President. I “made it up” and wrote it into my story. Then a person who was a protector of POTUS asked me to “not go there.” Fair enough. I broomed it for the sake of Presidential security and my acquaintance, and the folks he works with, lives. Easy decision… then.

Two days ago, I met a guy who tells me almost the whole “Installation X” story! Now this guy is a new source. I could go with his version of the events and situation since he so far has not asked me to forget it. (He may not be as in the loop as my original source.) But that would just be a way around what I said I wouldn’t do to my original source and my own feeling of obligation to the men an women who risk their lives carrying out our nation’s security that has to be done in secret.

So no. I am still not going to go near this thing. I will however scour the Internet, go to the library and see if any of this can be open sourced. Meaning if it’s already out there and thus I won’t be jeopardizing a source or my country. Although I hope it’s not.

Writing Tip # 5 – Read Good books, Twice!!!


Here’s a no brainer, find good books and read them – twice! Once as a reader, let it soak in, enjoy the ride, let the story take you. Experience the literary impact that a good book has on you. Then read it again, although this time as a writer! You now know everything the writer knew, during your first read, when he knew the outcome and you didn’t. Study the set ups, now that you know how they pay off. Look for how the writer infused them into the story? Pay attention to the character development, at best it should have been barely conscious to you in the first reading, but, as an analysis, note how that a person was being drawn before your eyes. Find all the little touches, moments, places where character was defined, enhanced or reinforced. Maybe even find a few things you were unaware of during your first read. Things like, the vocal styles of characters, style of prose of scene description that may subtlety have changed depending on the character that is in the setting. Or a change in point of view which enhances pacing. Possibly a dynamic pulse created by length of sentences to accelerate or slow up the plot. Apply this same analysis to Plot, Settings, Dialogue and Subtext!

Finally, this being the last tip in the series, I leave you with two thoughts;
One: Nothing an English professor, George Bernard Shaw or I could impart on you will actually help you write as well as you, writing everyday! Writing is a muscle. It responds to, and needs to be, exercised regularly. Write a sentence, a paragraph, page or (on rare occasions) chapter everyday. Write prose, poetry or essays, write anything, but just write. The more you do it, the more you hone your writing chops.

Two: To write is to rewrite. Don’t be afraid, it may seem like it’s perfect… but that was with yesterday’s eyes, today you’ll see new words, opportunities and connections. Rewrite your way to a final draft.

Tip 1 of my 5 part Writing Tip Series

Here’s stuff you won’t find in writing classes or college courses, (actually I don’t know, I was an Engineering major in college and never took a writing class as a “civilian”). They are instead, what has served me as little cues on writing.  So take it all with a grain of salt, decide for yourself if I am striking a true cord. However, if any of it works, consider mentioning my name when you become bigger than me.  I could use the P.R.

Tip 1  Inciting Incident

Discover, realize, admit or just decide on: The Inciting Incident.

Most every great story, film or play had its inception from a spark of an image, or line of dialogue sound, or expression of a feeling, deep within the mind, which drives the writer to completion.  Think of it as finding a beautiful gem, then spending a year working on the perfect setting that will support, display and show off this jewel in all it’s glory.

More often than not, this sparkling idea comes to us as a single dramatic beat or sequence that engages you as a writer.  It becomes the carrot at the end of your stick, guiding you towards the writing of your story.  Hold that literary moment in a cherished place, and remember it’s first and foremost, for you, not necessarily for the readership at large.  In a really good story, the reader should not be aware of this point of origin as they read across it. They don’t have to necessarily realize that this was the seed from which the entire story, all the characters, plots, details and flow, sprang forth.

If this incident should fade or be replaced as you construct your story world, characters and plots, that’s okay.  Respect it and honor it for having gotten you that far.

Some of my inciting incidents;

  • “it’s not a computer virus, it’s a sperm.” became “The Eighth Day”
  • “I can’t believe you shot my Dad!” became “The Hammer of God”
  • “The death of time itself.” became The God Particle.
  • “The last thing a murder victim sees is burnt into the retina of the eye” became “Smile… You’re Dead!
  • “Health Plan hookers” became “The Devil’s Quota
  • “Sorry to inform you, you are a widow” became “Wife and Death”
  • “Spending money like the devil.” became “Prey to Hell”
  • “Man, woman, it’s all the same in the dark.” became “Silent Prey”
  • “Polaroid number 7” became “Ask Not”
  • “Mexican standoff… in Mexico!” became “The Whole Enchilada” and finally but most importantly,
  • “Is this seat taken?” became me.  When my Dad asked my Mom that question back in the 50’s.XC38WXVXCGU6