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The Power of Story

I’ve touched on this topic off and on in other posts, although not exactly from this direction. I am a confirmed bookaholic–reading is as necessary as breathing for me and I get completely lost in whatever story I’m reading. The world around me dissolves and all that remains is the story. My husband says I “inhale” books. Actually, I don’t inhale or devour them as much as I absorb or assimilate stories. The story becomes part of me, part of who I am and what I believe, which is why I’m extremely picky about the types of stories I read. Story has a power influence on me and I select the stories with great care because I know the effect they have.

Story goes beyond format. I’ve always been a bit bothered by people who despise certain forms of story simply because it doesn’t seem “literate” enough. Stories passed down by mouth are sometimes seen as less “educated,” yet many of our faerie tales started as verbal legends which were later written down to become beloved tales read by millions. Others are tales told to children whose parent later set the same ideas down on paper. The story itself doesn’t change with the transformation from voice to print; it expands. Print allows the story to add details not always included in a verbal rendition, yet the story itself remains intact.

It’s the same with music. There are people who can play shaped notes, but not the regular notes on the same staff. Others can play sharps, but not flats; while others play flats but not sharps. This has always astounded me since both sharps and flats are the same keys on the piano. I cannot see the difference when playing.

In story, the format is really as unimportant as whether the note is A flat or G sharp–it’s the same note. Whether a story is told in comic book form, graphic novel, ebook, print, or even a visual medium such as movie or television, as long as it is well-told, what’s the difference? How can we limit the universe of story by confining it to a specific form? Some tales are best told visually (Hunt for Red October); others fits better in a graphic novel form (Atomic Robo). In spite of the two film versions, The Scarlet Pimpernel remains a story best told in print as the film endings seemed contrived and lacked the emotional punch of the writer’s words as she describes Marguerite’s agony in choosing between her beloved brother or her beloved husband.

The power of story transcends the shackles of form. It lingers long after the physical packaging has faded into obscurity. A wise writer (and a wise reader) will not judge a story by its cover.


The Golden Age of Science Fiction

Back when I was growing up in rural America, I didn’t realize what a remarkable time period I lived in. My dreams always leapt to the future in far flung galaxies or excavated in the past amid ancient or fantastical civilizations.  I practically lived in the library where I had free access to these worlds through the pages of books.  Yet I always longed for the days when I could afford to buy my own copies, when books would be as free and plentiful and accessible as the air I breathed.

Fast forward to the 21st century when all my dreams seemed to come true: books are plentiful and accessible thanks to e-readers and publishing platforms like Createspace; however, the writers have changed.  Back in the Golden Age of science fiction, writers wrote series of books, not books of series. They created marvelous worlds and characters and spun countless episodes of adventures like an ongoing television series.

Today, however, writers take one story, pump it up with useless backstory, bland dialogue and wasted pages of description in order to stretch the one story over a dozen books. And I am left back in the exact same desert as before—unable to satisfy my thirst for imaginary worlds and larger than life characters.

But back to the Golden Age of Science Fiction.  In the decades leading up to the 1970s, science fiction had a positive outlook—even the most thought-provoking stories left the reader with a gleam of hope at the end, a chance that humanity could learn from their mistakes and move forward into a glorious age of space exploration.  Even the cautionary tales, the woeful predictions of gloom and doom were offset with stories detailing the best humanity had to offer. There was also a slew of juvie lit (not necessarily about high school kids), but written for high schoolers that showed we could overcome our base nature and rise to join the vast and glorious civilizations that spanned the galaxies.  It was a time for encouragement and enthusiasm to explore the cosmos and every kid wanted to be a huge part of it.

At least, those of us who read science fiction.

I miss those stories. Even going to the library today finds precious little on the shelves worth my time and investment. Oh, I know Tom Corbett, Andre Norton, Ray Bradbury, and the Heinlein juvie novels were formulaic – that’s what made them so great! In spite of the peril and danger we knew our heroes would succeed. In a world fraught with real dangers and problems, losing myself in an uplifting story was a sorely needed form of escapism.

I think we’ve lost something vital with today’s version of science fiction. We are breeding a generation that has no imagination, that expects aliens to plot the destruction of humanity (and thus expects humanity to plot its own demise), that hasn’t the gumption to reach outward to the stars because of all the obstacles that must first be overcome. Today’s science fiction does far more to defeat the exploration of space than to entice young people to boldly go where no one has gone before.

With our passion for “realistic” stories we have lost not only a piece of our history, but a piece of ourselves. And a society that lacks imagination, can never prepare for the future.

Malls use to be a cheap date. Not to mention an interesting place to while away a few hours just window shopping

Today, I can be in and out of a mall in under 20 minutes.

Last week, my hubby and I had some time to spare and decided to check out the local mall, something we did a lot when we were newlyweds and pretty broke. One circumference of the mall at a fast clip and we were done; the mall of bygone years replaced with a cardboard cutoff of clothing and shoe shops with little or no appeal.

I can already hear the naysayers: of course those shops don’t appeal to you; you’re old! Unfortunately, those kinds of shops didn’t appeal to me when I was young, either, but I found plenty of places to entertain and entrance in the mall when I was younger.

Malls used to contain a variety (diversity, mixture, selection, assortment, miscellany, range, not all the same) of shops. Somewhere down the years, malls lost their distinctiveness, their uniqueness.

I remember when a trip to the mall meant hours browsing two different bookstores: B. Dalton’s and Walden’s. Specialty shops offered one-of-a kind items like knives, seashells, candles, or oriental imports. Pier 51 was actually an import store with unique items from around the world, instead of a high priced home décor shop. Malls had at least one, often two, toy stores (and not the kind of plastic knockoffs you can buy at your local Walmart).

Then there were the “fun” stores, which offered boxed games, board games, gaming supplies and educational puzzles, toys, etc. Often malls boasted a “scientific” or “nature” store, which after the bookstores were our children’s favorite shops. We all enjoyed browsing the scientific knickknacks and doodads or picking up a new fossil or polished rock for our home collection.

And who can forget the pet shops? What fun checking out the cute puppies and kitties, but also looking at the fish, hedgehogs, iguanas and other rare and exotic pets.

I understand the reasons a lot of mall stores are defunct and there may be some malls in major metroplexes that still retain variety; however, we may have traded profit and ratings share for the nostalgia and magic of a bygone era when people actually made mall walking a part of their weekly routines.

Good Guys Still Win

Catching up on some of my favorite comic books/series, I’m reminded of the basic reason people are attracted to the genre, along with faerytales and fantasy. We love seeing good triumph

It’s an idea that’s not too popular in present day Hollywood or the publishing industry. Pick up any book off the shelf or check out a movie and what do you get? Evil trouncing good and if the hero wins at all, it’s at an extremely high cost and through a series of coincidences. Modern society has lost its faith in good triumphing over evil and our social media and pop culture reflect that unfortunate tendency.

Evil is often flashier, noisier, more in-your-face than good, so it gets more attention. But if the maxim “evil is stronger than good” really were true, our world would be in much sadder shape. In reality, good triumphs over evil every day.

Good shows up in dozens of small, unexpected places and unexpected ways: the person who gives up a seat on the subway or bus, the kid who helps the old couple down the street with their computer, the police officer who goes the extra mile to cut a kid a break, the firefighter who volunteers in rural areas, the neighbor who brings a meal to a grieving family, and the list goes on.

The very fact that the majority of the populace abides by rules even when there is no one around to enforce those rules verifies the strength of good over evil. Yes, I know evil exists and makes a strong showing, but more often than not ordinary people stand up to evil every day, yet never make the headlines. Being good doesn’t garner “ratings,” so the news media isn’t as motivated to cover those stories, yet they exist in far more communities than we realize.

We are used to seeing good overcome evil in the midst of tragedy and perhaps the reason the news media plays it up then is because humanity can only stand so much evil before we need to reaffirm that good wins. We are hardwired to believe in good, which is why faerytales will always remain popular, as will underdogs overcoming giants. Our default is to accept that good overcomes evil. So when we are surrounded by good everyday, it has a tendency to get “lost” in the blessings of life. Unfortunately, it takes a tragedy to reawaken us to the good that is around us on a daily basis.

Filmakers could learn a lesson or two from real life. People like seeing the “come from behind” and “feel good” movies. Such movies don’t create a fantasy world that makes us ignore the bad stuff happening every day, rather these movies and books give us a reason to try again, to get up and stand when the world is caving in. We need to be reminded that not everyone in the world is evil or bad or mean or vindictive. The majority of the world is composed of good, decent people trying to make a life for themselves and their families, and when presented with evil, they will stand up and do the right thing; they will defend the weak and helpless; they will overcome evil with good.

Classical Literature in a Nutshell

Recently, I read a post about a back-to-school classical literature reading list, and I was not surprised to find it filled with depressing, dark books. Over the years, I have discovered that what constitutes “classical” by the English profession seems to have changed over the years; although, I do recall wondering in high school why so much of the American literature we read in school fell into the same dark and depressing category.

So what does constitute “classical” literature beyond a recommendation by prestigious collegiate pundits? According to the dictionary, classical literature is “of ancient Greece and Rome. The term is also used for the literature of any language in a period notable for the excellence and enduring quality of its writers’ works.”

Excellence and enduring quality. Maybe that’s the problem. Our definition of “excellence” has deteriorated until we can no longer distinguish between what is high quality and what merely appeals to the masses. What we read is who we are, what we become. If we only read what is dark and depressing and lacking in anything uplifting, then that is what we as a people, as a nation, as individuals become. Books with happy, uplifting endings are not necessarily “low-brow,” while being dark doesn’t automatically mark a book as “cerebral.

If I were to re-tool America’s classical reading list, I would included these books:

David Copperfield — Charles Dickens

The Scarlet Piimpernel — Baroness Orczy

The Bronze Bow — Elizabeth George Speare

Trumpeter of Krakaw— Eric P. Kelly

The Taming of the Shrew — William Shakespeare

The Lord of the Rings — J. R. R. Tolkien

Around the World in 80 Days — Jules Verne

Lorna Doone — R. D. Blackmoore

Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe

The Phantom Tollbooth –Norton Juster

Captain Courageous — Rudyard Kipling

The Screwtape Letters — C. S. Lewis

Paradise Lost — John Milton

The Prisoner of Zenda — Anthony Hope

Treasure Island — Robert Louis Stevenson

Watership Down — Richard Adams

The Wind in the Willows– Kenneth Grahame

Little Women — Louisa May Alcott

Little Men — Louisa May Alcott

Jo’s Boys — Luisa May Alcott

Anne of Green Gables — L.M. Montgomery

The Secret Garden — Francis Hodgson Burnett

A Little Princess — Francis Hodgson Burnett

White Fang — Jack London

The Princess and Curdie — George MacDonald

The Lion’s Paw — Robb White

In addition, I think every person would benefit from reading a good selection of science fiction, such as Robert Heinlein’s Starman Jones and Andre Norton’s The Beast Master.

Such books are not only timeless, but good for the soul.


The Publishing Game

Publishing isn’t always about good writing; it’s about making money.  So the trap new writers (and sometime established authors) fall into is if I’m not making money and no one will publish my book, it must not be any good. Someone once told me, “Marketable isn’t the same thing as good.”

The whole publishing game reminds me of one of my favorite Robert Heinlein novels: Starman Jones. Max wants to be a navigator in space like his uncle before him. However, the space guilds place rigorous restrictions to block anyone but a select few from participation. Since there wasn’t anyone in the “inner circle” to sponsor Max, there’s no hope; until he meets a savvy and streetwise con artist who finds a way around the guilds.

The publishing industry is like those guilds: only a select few win and you have to know someone in the inner circle who sponsors you. Yes, I’ve heard all the other reasons and some are very valid: strong writers, good plots, etc. But a lot of the “polish” we see in professionally published novels come afterwards, as the book goes through the in-house editing process. The same polish applied to an unknown novel would have the same end results.

I’m a prolific reader, have been since elementary school when I read everything I could get my hands on and practically lived at the library. Once I even took a speed-reading course to have access to a library that was out of bounds to normal students. My point? I approach publishing not as a writer, but as a reader! And it’s the main reason I’m a proponent of self-publishing. There is a vast ocean of books out there with no traditional backing, but every bit as entertaining and gripping. Some may lack polish, some may even have a few grammar errors, but it doesn’t change the fact that I enjoyed the story.

Yes, some self-published books are boring and poorly written. But you know what? I’ve struggled through some “critically acclaimed” best sellers and put them down after the first chapter. What traditional publishing companies find marketable isn’t always what I, as a reader, enjoy reading.

The bottom line is: where there’s a will, there’s a way. If you have a story, write it. If you have a book, publish it. There is nothing more rewarding than a reader who says, “I liked your book.” No amount of money can equal the feeling. This is the best time in our century for new writers. Social media gives new writers ways to connect with readers and publicize their books. Self-publishing allows new books to be born every minute and with so much variety there is sure to be something every reader will like.

If you write it and publish it, someone will read it.




Learning from the Masters

I grew up on the tail end of science fictions “Golden Age,” a time when writers were more philosophers, scientists, and theorists than people intent on creating entertainment. Most novels focused on scientific principles and how those related to men and conflict.

Even though “soft” sci fi stories were few and far between, there were authors who were consummate masters: Andre Norton, Robert Heinlein, H. Beam Piper and Ray Bradbury.

My personal favorites are still: The Beast Master by Andre Norton; Have Space Suit Will Travel by Robert Heinlein; Four Day Planet and Lone Star Planet by H. Beam Piper; and Dark They Were and Golden-Eyed by Ray Bradbury. No matter how many times I re-read these books, they never lose their freshness and appeal.

What have I learned from these great storytellers? First, world building doesn’t have to be included in the story. Heinlein’s Have Space Suit Will Travel gives little information about Earth during the story’s time setting. It simply wasn’t important. Details on even the Mother Thing’s planet are skimpy and irrelevant.

Second, elaborate character background needs to remain in the author’s head, not in the story. The hero of Lone Star Planet is simply explained as part of a government agency relegated to a backwater world as discipline for too much “free thinking.” All the nuances and details of his past life are immaterial. It is how he reacts to situations and responds to the challenge that make the story intriguing.

Finally, the story itself must be entertaining and compelling. Readers seek similarities, points of reference that are at once familiar and different.  What connects readers to the hero in The Beast Master are ties to the past, familiar scenes of farming and ranching. What grounds us in the story are the similarities with a few simple brushstrokes, like Chinese line painting. The white spaces, not the lines, define the subject. The conflict and action which drives the story are powerful and potent when found in the most basic needs: belonging, home, family, what defines us, what really matters. Once a writer has found these things, the story unfolds naturally and all the accouterments such as details, setting, dialogue become embellishments, like jewels on the hilt of a sword or decorations in a home.

Stories of ordinary people facing ordinary life in an extraordinary way, this is the stuff of legends.





Martian Scrabble

Widdershins. Hareath. Plethora. Words have always fascinate me. I can spend hours browsing through a thesaurus or researching the origin and meaning of a word. I love inventing words, too; putting letters and ideas together to create new concepts. Maybe that’s why I invented Martian Scrabble in college.

We used a regular Scrabble board, didn’t keep score, and there were only two rules: you have to pronounce it and you have to define it. Mikklestein: a container for storing fermented fruit. Cryzkle (craizcul): a green and gold striated stone used in fine jewelry. A couple of girls wandering through the UC asked what we were playing. Then they wanted to know how we knew Martian. “I was born there,” I told them.

English has a plethora of intricately beautiful words, each with its own sense of hue and meaning: house, cottage, shed, shack, bungalow, edifice, home; red, crimson, maroon, scarlet, brick, salmon. Even the spelling can change the meaning of a word. Take the word, gray/grey, for instance. The American version has a softer colour, more mellow and gentle, pussy willows in spring. The English version is darker, more robust, grey storm clouds over a Scottish moor.

Which is why I don’t subscribe to the current trend in writing to limit vocabulary and eliminate so many useful English words: vivid verbs, alternatives for “said,” and adverbs. Said: plain and boring. Gushed, screamed, whispered, murmured, replied, stated. Each word paints a specific picture and allows the writer to spend more time creating dialogue, story, and action instead of wasting time and space explaining to the reader. “Trend? Wait a minute, I thought everyone wrote like this?” Today, yes. Twenty years ago, no. Writers were free to use specific verbs and concentrate more on story. I tire of wading through copious amounts of words when a writer attempts to avoid any word except “said” and tortures the reader by spending dozens of sentences to say what could be said in a shorter, more specific manner. I’m not talking about showing the reader instead of telling. I’m merely responding to a “dumbing down” of our reading material in an attempt to satisfy a current fad.

Don’t believe me? Pick up a copy of Fog Magic, then compare it to any storybook written for elementary school kids today. Double dare you.

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