Blog Archives

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.

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Everything I Need to Know about Writing I Learned from Korean Dramas

Well, maybe not everything, since I didn’t discover Korean dramas until my children were grown.  However, Korean dramas have heavily influenced both my writing and style.

* If you want to learn how to write fast-paced, exiting plots: watch Korean dramas.

* If you want to learn about incorporating plot twists, watch Korean dramas.

* If you want to learn how to “grow” or change a “static” character into a “dynamic character, watch Korean dramas.

* If you want to learn how to wring the most emotion out of a scene, watch Korean dramas.

Today’s blog, however, isn’t about how to write; it’s about the gatekeepers that hinder or block writing.  If you watch any K-drama long enough, you come to recognize that gatekeepers are part and parcel of all good plot twists. Just when you think the hero/heroine is going to succeed, up pops another gatekeeper to sabotage everything.  Sometimes the gatekeeper can be a rival, a parent, an old enemy, someone in authority who is crooked or has a lot of power, even tradition.

Writing has the same kinds of gatekeepers. Sometimes a parent or teacher discourages us from following our gifts. “Very few people make a living writing books.”  “The industry is highly competitive.”  Maybe so, but that’s no reason not to write.

Sometimes the gatekeeper is our own lack of knowledge or skill; however, that particular gatekeeper can be easily overcome. A much harder gatekeeper is the “location” where we find ourselves.  Writing science fiction in the middle of rural America isn’t going to be easy, nor is writing rural westerns in a metroplex. Often times we find ourselves surrounded by cultures or people who just “don’t get it,” and thus finding our market or niche becomes something that seems insurmountable.

Time and reality are also gatekeepers. In 30 years I have written 8 novels. That may not seem like much; however, I’ve been a wife, raised four children, been a missionary, newspaper editor, and school teacher. Working full time leaves little room for anything else, especially if one is going to have time for family and self. I “make” time to write, yet the demands of reality often get in the way. Still, eight novels are eight more than most people have written.

The last, most powerful gatekeeper is the publishing industry itself.  In the first 20 years of my writing “career” I ran across the reality that just because a book is good doesn’t mean it’s marketable. (not my idea, I borrowed it from another indie writer). This truism means that publishers don’t always publish good books; they publish what will make them money.  I know that hundreds of excellent books languish in reject bins due to this mentality.

Yet thanks to Createspace and the self-publishing industry, this monster gatekeeper is slowly being overcome. Indie authors still have to battle “published” authors and their attitude that somehow self-publishing makes us “not good enough.” It reminds me of Tomorrow’s Cantabile, a school filled with prestigious musicians who looked down on the “leftovers” as not being as good enough to make the A team. Until one courageous conductor transformed those opinions into a remarkable orchestra where every “voice” blended into perfect harmony to create a unique cantabile.

Writers are unique. Our voice, our message doesn’t have to garner the spotlight to be meaningful—or respected.  A library is filled with a plethora of books, old, new, innovative, traditional, factual, fantastical, opinionated, educating. Some have worn, dull covers hiding exquisite stories. Others are all flash and bling and not much substance, but popular with readers. Some are priceless tomes that cannot be removed from the library, while others spin through the paperback exchange like a revolving door.

Everyone has a story. Some writers may not be as skilled as others in telling their stories, yet they deserve a chance to sing and a even minor chord can touch a heart.

 

Tainted Writing

I must admit I was a bit disappointed with the way the second season of The Flash ending. One of the reasons I have kept up with this show while letting so many of the other “superhero” shows go was its focus on light rather than dark.

However, the millennial way of doing things seems to be get a viewer invested in a “good guy” then show he’s been bad all along.

Sorry, good writing doesn’t work that way.

It is easy for a good man to pretend to be bad, but it is impossible for a bad man to pretend to be good. (see Mirror, Mirror, STOS)  Even his efforts at “good” are tainted by darkness, and one instinctively doesn’t completely trust him even at his most charming.

This tendency to trick the viewer or reader into believing someone is good, knowing deep down he is bad is just poor writing. To be truly effective, one must show the villain in all his evilness, while presenting a “charming” appearance to the hero; leaving the audience breathlessly moaning, ‘no, no, no, don’t trust him!.” An excellent example is David Copperfield’s Uriah Heep, a mousy little man with sufficient power to wreak havoc in the lives of the main characters all the while pretending to be humble servant. The reader suffers intensely wondering when, or if, David and the others will ever figure out this desperately wicked person and be free of his machinations.

Understandably, it is harder to portray that in film, but the best cinematographers excel at it. Maybe through a glance, a gesture, an aside, or just the attitude of the hero. Take Frank Capra’s portrayal of Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life. We see the evil things he does, but when he is his most charming, offering George a great job, it is George’s reaction to the handshake that reveals the depth of Potter’s treachery. A certain look in his eyes, then rubbing his hand against his trousers. Iconic.

I’ll keep watching Flash, but it’s lost a bit of the wonder for me. Plot twists simply for the sake of “rebooting” are simply childish.

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.

Nerd Confessions

The problem with being a niche writer is that often niche writers are niche people. We don’t fit into any preconceived or “normal” category. We are neither fish nor good red herring and that in itself presents a problem.  How do we find a comfortable place in both the world and our writing?

For instance, growing up I was neither city nor rural, although I lived in a small town.  I disliked the limited scope of small town life; however,  I desired the quieter pace.  I disliked the noise and confusion and hurry of the big city, but I craved the accessibility of culture and variety. I was also neither city girl nor country girl. I loved being in the country, but lacked the skills necessary for country living. Even though I considered myself country, five minutes in the presence of a country girl made it crystal clear that wasn’t me. The same applied to the city—the social life and status necessary to thrive didn’t interest or appeal to me.

My true habitat was the library. I spent a lot of time growing up at the library, browsing shelves, picking out a book, and reading it at one of the tables. I loved the smell of ink and paper, the quiet that permeated the place, the solitude of being surrounded by worlds that accepted me for who I was.  In college, I would often escape to the stacks of government documents just to find a quiet place to study or read without interruption.

Sports was another arena I just didn’t fit in. Oh, I could go to the game and scream with the rest for a touchdown, but I just didn’t get the intense need. I could take it or leave it, and most of the time I left it.

Maybe it had to do with growing up poor. We never missed a meal, but we didn’t have the “extra” life took to fit in. Events like Homecoming where the girls wore mums that dragged the ground and cost a week’s salary starkly pointed out I didn’t fit in.

In a way, I’ve never overcome that sensation of not fitting in. I teach, but I’m not “a teacher.” In my mind there is a difference and I am acutely aware of it every time I step into a classroom.  I am a Christian, but I don’t fit in with most Christians’ ideas of what constitutes a “good Christian” – in other words, I’m not caught up in the rituals and traditions. The “doing” isn’t as important as the “being.”

When it comes to writing, I wince every time someone asks me to categorize my novels. Science fiction is a broad term and trying to pin it down to subcategory isn’t easy. Is it a western on Mars? A space opera? Space fantasy? A slice of life set in a futuristic setting?  Not a fan of romance novels, I shuddered when I realized my stories sell better under the romance category than sci fi.

Then there’s the whole “what age group is it written for?” I don’t write age groups. I write stories. If a story is good, all ages will like it. I still read the Hardy Boys and Trixie Belden. I still read Rick Brant and Tom Corbett. I also like The Ranger’s Apprentice series. It doesn’t mean my tastes are juvenile (although a case could be made that I prefer juvie lit over adult lit); I enjoy a well-written story. I read classic literature like the Scarlet Pimpernel and the Prisoner of Zenda, but can’t stand the “classics” required in English lit classes.  (Is it just me or is the educational definition of “classical” limited to dark, occult, and perverse?)

My niche may be defined by books and quiet places, but it’s my niche and I’m comfortable with it. Just don’t ask me to define it or limit it…it’s as vast and diverse as the universe.

 

Radio Cat

My friend Jim Baum owns a local radio station. We met several years ago when I was a wet-behind-the-ears editor and he was mayor. With a long history of radio broadcasting behind him, Jim became my mentor, teaching me how to manoeuvre my way through small town politics, to become comfortable conversing with movers and shakers, and to ask good, investigative questions.

However, this blog isn’t about my journalist friend….it’s about his cat. Squeak has been taking care of the radio station for as long as Jim has been there. Whether Squeak came with the station or moved in right along with Jim is something I’ve never learned. Squeak is there at 5:30 a.m. every morning to greet Jim and “open up” shop. She seldom ventures outside, preferring to prowl the small three to four room station 24-7. She greets visitors with feline elegance and graciousness and during most of Jim’s interviews at the station she supervises from his desk in a prominent position between interviewer and interviewee. To a lucky few, she extends the honor of a personal “cat bath”.

As any cat person knows, cats tend to make their presence known and felt without saying a word. The last time I was in the station, Squeak sat quietly on the floor at my feet letting me know in no uncertain terms I had usurped her chair. I quickly shared and was reward with the privilege of scratching her chin and ears.

Cats are highly intelligent creatures and every so often one seems to enjoy being intimately involved in the writing process. Squeak supervises Jim’s creative process, adding a comment now and again when he pays more attention to writing than to her.

It’s been awhile since I’ve had a cat that shared my love of writing. Long, long ago in a town far, far away, we had a Siamese cat who felt I couldn’t write anything unless she was perched on my shoulders or the back of the desk chair. I have author friends who sometimes moan about their cats hijacking their stories by walking across the keyboard or getting between them and the computer screen. But let’s face it, where would we be without our furry muses? There is something soothing and creative about a purring cat, and even when they are not purring, the simple act of stroking their silky fur has often jumpstarted a story or idea.

Here’s to long life to all radio and writing cats…wherever they may be.

 

 

 

 

 

Men in Dresses

Scrolling through the list of offerings on Netflix and Kindle often leaves me frustrated and longing for something good to read/watch. Not that there aren’t great sounding titles out there, but I get really tired of the glut of “strong female leads” inundating society right now. Although I much prefer watching something with a “strong hero lead,” I don’t mind a strong female if she’s well-written; however, most “strong female leads” aren’t females, but merely “men in dresses.”

Let me explain. Hollywood’s version of a strong female is someone who has dumped her femininity in exchange for being foul mouthed, pushy, control-freak, and beating the stuffing out of every villain around; i.e. just another guy in a dress. Not only is this insulting to me, it also denigrates females. We are strong warriors, but we go about it in a totally different way. Take Captain Janeway, for example. She tamed a Borg, took on Q and made mush of him, managed to make friends of alien cultures without “kirking” their planets or culture, all without having to punch out her opponent.

Strong women harness the power of words rather than profanity to make their point. Aside from the whole morality issue, profanity is just lazy writing and lazy speaking. Truly talented folks know the power of words, and women have the most experience in whittling down their opposition with a few well-chosen words. Take Princess Leia for example. “Governor Tarkin. I should have expected to see you holding Vader’s leash. I recognized your foul stench when I was brought on board.” No wimpy captive this. She skillfully puts Vader in his place while expressing disdain for her captor, all the while giving up nothing of her femininity.

Strong women, like strong heroes, allow the strength of their convictions to make the right decision. While Hollywood has stripped women of their femininity as if it’s something bad, Hollywood seems to delight in making their heroes all wimps. Under pressure the hero caves, gives up, hopes the tough guy heroine can save the day by beating up the villain. True strength comes from an internal belief regardless of personal cost. Tarkin figures he can use Leia’s femininity against her by threatening her home planet of Alderaan. Leia, on the other hand, horrified by what he plans, actually uses her femininity to trick Tarkin. She feigns giving in and gives him a false answer. Of course the story writer doesn’t allow it to work, but still she doesn’t trade a whole planet for the rebellion. Earlier, she uses her strength of character to stare down Vader even under torture. She may look helpless, but she never gives in.

Strong women know how to use wit and timing to take out the bad guy. While I love a good fight scene, there is no way I’m going to believe some 100 pound girl can beat up several 200 pound guys, no matter how many martial art techniques she knows. Women just don’t have the body structure and strength to do that. Besides, why should we resort to brute strength when we can easily use our brains to find a less strenuous solution? Leia waits for the right moment, then strangles Jabba the Hut with a chain, not her bare hands.

Part of a woman’s mystique is that she is different from men. A truly great writer knows how to incorporate femininity into a heroine and allow her to be a warrior and a woman at the same time. Lazy writers simply put men in dresses and call them heroines.

 

 

Convoluted mind of a writer

I have a Pinterest account, not a Facebook account. While that might not seem like a terribly important confession, my tendency is to use the Pinterest account as a sort of digital notebook. It’s much tidier than trying to find bits and scraps of ideas amid the flotsam of crumpled notepads and torn napkins, since I’m an inveterate jotter. I scribble down all sorts of random information wherever I can find a clean space.

So imagine my delight in finding Pinterest: a veritable wealth of ideas for the aspiring writer and nifty little categories to keep all that information organized. I think my favorites are the writing prompts. The ideas come from other writers to encourage one another to actually write or as exercises to spark the creative juices. I screen shot and use various prompts that pop up on Pinterest for my AVID classes as quick writes. I’m a firm believer in using imagination to build better writers, so prefer the flamboyance of “A talking wolf is the least of your problems,” he said to the humdrum write about a life experience or choose whether bubble gum should come in balls or sticks. Wait, that last has possibilities….

Still, there are those off the wall prompts that magically appear on my screen and tickle my skewed sense of humor. Prompts I find amusing and delightful, but will never use in a story or novel simple because it’s not my style, such as:

“That has got to be the lamest pick-up line in existence.”

“Don’t worry. That’s just Plan A.”

“So what’s Plan B?”

“To take you hostage.”

Or

Nope, I can’t go to Hell.

Satan still has a restraining order against me.

Or

“No, sir. I am not underestimating the kidnappers. YOU are underestimating my grandmother.”

Or

“I need to talk to a human,” he demanded.

Or

“And why do we have to bring a twelve-year-old to a crime scene?”

The boy smiled faintly and replied, “Detective, I am here for your protection.”

Such fun little prompts that stir my soul, yet will never find life on the printed page. So why do I collect them? For the same reason I collected bits of broken pottery or green rocks at the beach—they fascinate me; cases of what ifs, never weres, might have beens which satisfy some primal, deep seated urge to let my imagination run wild and fill up my creative tank. The bits and piece simmer and stew in the back of my brain and somewhere along the way metamorphose into brave new worlds of my own creation. They become the building blocks of my universe as essential and powerful as DNA.

And if not, they function as wonderful money wrenches to mess with my students’ minds.

Plot Twists

“Life is a book and there are a thousand pages I have not yet read.” Will Herondale

I don’t know who Will Herondale is, but he is quite right. Anyone who thinks life is boring or humdrum or not worth living simply isn’t living. When I was in high school I had my life all mapped out. Go to college, get a degree in journalism, and serve on the mission field writing news stories.

Like well-written books, a well-lived life has plot twists; although, I missed the first one in the midst of language school, cultural adaptation, and family life. I did graduate and did wind up on the mission field; however, no one seemed to want my services as a writer covering the various stories and events happening on the mission field. I wrote those stories in our letters home to family and friends. In spite of the curve in the road, I found a way to pursue my passion.

The curve turned into a plot twist where the “career girl” became a stay at home mom, and I still found time to write in the midst of bottles, diapers, meal planning and laundry. The unexpected direction filled my life with its share of troubles and unspeakable joys.

The next plot twist was equally unexpected, but more overt as we left the mission field to return stateside. We assumed we would always be on the mission field until we retired. Now we were no longer missionaries, but also right back where we started—in the same rural area serving the same small church. Ironic, but satisfying, and we had a wealth of experience and wisdom we would have missed out on.

Fast forward a few years to a time our last two children are in high school and the chance of a lifetime drops in my life. After 20 something years I finally get to use my journalism degree as editor of a small town newspaper. My ultimate dream job ended after four years as a new plot twist emerged.

Today I find myself teaching at a local high school. Back when I was in college I had no illusions about being a teacher. I wasn’t cut out for it; my personality didn’t fit in with being cooped up in a small room teaching the same thing over and over. Routine wasn’t for me. Yet I find myself strangely satisfied with this new chapter in my life even though the challenges some days leaving me feeling like I’ve gone a few rounds with a rancor. What will be in the next chapter? I don’t know, but I’m looking forward to finding out.

Life’s plot twists are a good lesson for writers, who might mistake the humdrum and ordinary for extraneous material. It’s within those bits and pieces of ordinary life that one’s characters develop the strength and fortitude for handling the extraordinary times. Not all plot twists have to be earth shattering or life altering; they merely need to develop a new layer to one’s character and move the character forward on their journey.

Enjoy the detours.

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.

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