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Archive for June, 2014

MIND-MELD: The Reader-Writer Bond

Several years ago, after a relaxing few days out of town, we dropped a friend off at his place of employment. “Back to the old grind,” he sighed. Which I thought was only slightly weird, as he was currently performing in a Broadway play that had gotten rave reviews.

1 standing oNow I realize that anything becomes “same old, same old” when you do it day in and day out. But still, as we pulled away from the curb, I couldn’t help but wistfully wonder what it would be like for the rest of us, if, after putting in a good day’s work, everyone who would eventually benefit from our labor was right there in front of us, leaping to their feet, applauding and cheering. Wouldn’t that be great?

I’ve been remembering that drop-off lately, as B.K. and I are in final boarding stages for the release of PLAGUES OF EDEN.

It used to be that storytellers plied their craft in person, able to discern the involvement of the tell-ees in the flickering firelight. Now, with the advent of the printed word (and the spoken word, captured digitally), the storyteller and the reader have an enforced degree of separation. I write alone at my desk, and you read–where? In your room, on a train, in a Starbucks, in the bath? I don’t know! You’re on your own.

doctor mind meldThe inimitable Lee Child, who is a captivating speaker as well as author, asserts that when readers pick up a novel, they enter into an intense “mind-meld” with the author.

As a reader myself, I believe that to be true. A novel worth its salt creates an entire world to which the reader is given a personal invitation. You’re then invited into the  mind-space of a group of characters, and you vicariously accompany them upon whatever journey awaits you all.

And that’s something wonderful, personal, and meaningful.

Do you remember a time you had an adventure? Went on a trip to a faraway land, or even your cousin’s house–or possibly a restaurant you’d never tried before? And something magical happened–whatever it is that’s necessary for a fun occasion to become an indelible memory. To this day, you remember who else was there with you, some of the best lines that were said, the laughter (or the danger or the horror). Your own intense feelings. From then on, whether the experience was harrowing or wonderful, it was unforgettable. And you now have a bond with those folks that were there. Until the end of time, one of you can say a certain word or phrase, and the rest of you will ricochet back in time.

That is what happens when you read a really good book. You and those characters go on a heightened journey together.

So, here’s the weird thing for me, as an author. The characters in my books–I KNOW them. While a reader might spend a dozen hours with them, I’ve spent months. They’re my intimate friends. And, whether I want it to or not, what happens to them impacts me. B.K. still hasn’t gotten over what happens at the end of BEYOND EDEN.  Whereas, when I finished one day of writing in the mind of a character in PLAGUES named Leal, I went to a weekly pub meeting and had to tell my friends, “I’m sorry, I just wrote some scenes that were highly intense for me, and I’m still a bit shaken.”

And so, when a reader enters into this mind-meld, for a while, we do share that same reality. There is a bond between us: we have friends in common.

But, here’s the thing. I really wish we could be in the mind-meld together. If not at the same time, that at least, as the writer, I could know it was happening. I don’t know how to bridge that gap, and I wish that I did.

Any suggestions?

So sometimes, sitting alone at my desk, having adventures with these fictional close friends, I do wish that I knew the flesh-and-blood “fellowship of the book” who would eventually be joining with me.

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Truthfully, I don’t need that standing ovation. I don’t even NEED us to be in the same room at the same time with my fellow journeyers, or obviously, I’d have stopped writing by now.

But it is awfully nice to know that the readers are out there, and to hear from some with whom I now have friends in common, and who have joined me on the journey.

So, thanks! And, when you finish your day’s work, take a minute and picturing me applauding. Well done.

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Hightailing it Out of Dystopia

I’m sick of Dystopia. I don’t want to live on an Animal Farm in 1984. I don’t want to run with Logan or snack on Soylent Green. I don’t even want to be Divergent while Catching Fire.divergent

While I understand the the books mentioned above are very well written, their worlds fully realized, I am afraid that, instead of being enabling calls to fight for a just world, they tend to make readers feel helpless, as if the world’s problems are unsolvable, and much bigger than all of us. They impart the fatalistic feeling that we as a world, or a society are  heading for a brick wall at lightning speed–at such lightning speed, that there’s nothing to be done.

In fact, one study done two years ago found that many adult women felt that global warming, or terrorists, or whatever, were so likely to end the world as we know it that they admitted to thinking, “Well, at least I got to…” have children, afford food, breathe clean air,  live in a nice house, participate in democracy…even if their children and grandchildren wouldn’t have the same opportunities.

Seriously.

I’m not saying that things aren’t going to Hell in a handbasket. They absolutely are. I’m also not saying that we shouldn’t read or write books about villainous people doing terrible things. We absolutely should.

hunger gamesWhat I am saying is that it’s time to become less obsessed with societies rooted in despair and start imagining ourselves citizens of KickAssTopia because we’ve got to face our problems head on and feel empowered to get out there and fix things before society devolves to the place that someone comes for our little sisters to make them fight to the death. Seriously.

42__unicorns_and_rainbows_by_royaba-d58uqslThis doesn’t mean riding unicorns to utopia (or eutopia) while pretending everything is sweetness and light. (Although apparently some people have other ideas. )

To my mind, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS is an inspiring book. It looks at hard situations head-on, but promotes the idea that the characters can have some control of their worlds and affect change. The same goes for books such as THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER.perksfault in our stars

A few years ago, sociologist Jon Haidt did a study of the emotion he calls “elevation.” What he found was that people who witness or even hear stories about people doing good deeds and putting themselves out there in altruistic ways are more likely to do such things themselves.

It’s true of real life and–thank goodness!–it’s also true of fiction. If you want to be an effective agent of change in the world, think about what you watch and what you read. (And what you write. I write what I write, often, as a pep talk to myself.)

Do you agree or disagree? Have any books driven you to take positive action? I’d love to hear.

How Female Novelists (quietly) Change the World

For many years, novelists fought the marketing hurdle that nonfiction gives you something (information), while fiction takes something away(your time). Many of us always knew that to be untrue, but it’s hard to explain to someone who wants “just the facts, ma’am.”

Now we’re finding out that isn’t  the case at all. Researchers have found that reading fiction changes your brain’s ability to function and make important interconnections for days after you finish reading a novel.

(http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/01/study-reading-a-novel-changes-your-brain/282952/)

But I believe fiction does something else important, albeit less quantifiable.

Fiction changes us. It changes how we think, how we view the world, what we expect, what we believe we’re capable of.

Let me note that I’m specifically not talking about the purposeful troublemakers, God bless them, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe (“the little lady who started this big war”), George Orwell or other political novelists. How they ignite arguments and change the world, for better or worse, is front and center.  Instead, I’m considering the instances of just darn good storytelling, of people spinning a yarn that involves and entertains the reader, and seems to be happening to a hero or heroine with whom the reader identifies: a normal person, just like us.

MStewart-1-Obit-master180Much of this thinking on my part has been triggered by the recent death of Mary Stewart. It’s hard to believe, at this point in time, how very different things were in the world of genre fiction in the mid 20th century. How women–even the smart ones–were “stand-by” characters who pushed the male hero forward and occasionally fed him important information. That’s if they were smart. Much more often, they distracted him with their “feminine wiles.” In either case, they didn’t exactly move the action. Or they were fully fleshed out characters, like Rebecca in the novel of the same name–but they were trapped in a world defined by men (and really mean women). Then came Mary. She purposefully wrote the kind of mystery/suspense novels she wanted to read: where the women were the active protagonists, marching into the fray.

Her heroines weren’t superheroes. In her obituary in The Guardian, she’s quoted as saying she would “take conventionally bizarre situations (the car chase, the closed-room murder, the wicked uncle tale) and send real people into them, normal, everyday people with normal, everyday reactions to violence and fear; people not ‘heroic’ in the conventional sense, but averagely intelligent men and women who could be shocked or outraged into defending, if necessary, with great physical bravery, what they held to be right.”

Stewart called her books “light, fast-moving stories, which are meant to give pleasure, and where the bees in the writer’s bonnet are kept buzzing very softly indeed,” saying she was “first and foremost a teller of tales, but I am also a serious-minded woman who accepts the responsibilities of her job, and that job, if I am to be true to what is in me, is to say with every voice at my command: ‘We must love and imitate the beautiful and the good.'”  You GO, woman!

Now, I don’t want to slight men here; I love men; they face their own challenges that are not easy. But I have to say, Mary-Stewart_2912427bgrowing up in the 20th century, girls were taught, nearly universally, that even if we were capable of doing something and the opportunity had presented itself, we had to first get permission. Being proactive without first getting someone to sign off on our decisions  is still a fearful thing to many of us. Mary’s heroines were scared, but they did it anyway. And if they could, darn it, so could I.

Mary Stewart’s book that rocked my world was The Crystal Cave, the story of the young Merlin–but told with a modern sensibility, not as a medieval bard’s tale. “The day my Uncle Camlach came home, I was just six years old.”  OMG. The fantastical and the every day married in such a way that made the everyday holy and magic, and made the stakes of being yourself so costly and dangerous but profoundly worth it. Life could be like this. Writing could be like this. This was the path that called me, and once I’d taken the first step onto it, there was no turning back.  Thank you, Mary. Thank you very much.

Many of the writers I most admire follow Mary’s advice that “the bees in the writer’s bonnet are kept buzzing very softly indeed.” To me, this is a very important part of affecting change in a person, and eventually, in society. By picking up a novel, you get to walk a mile (or ten) in that person’s shoes. Try on a new level of courage, of action, of thought, of living in a larger world, just to see how it fits. Perhaps before you would be comfortable with those changes in your skin, you will be comfortable with them, by proxy, in the character’s skin. And that’s how the possibility takes root.

Many, many writers have taken us forward down Mary’s path of “the beautiful and the good.” Here are some of my all-time favorites. Let me just note that the number one qualification for being on this  list (in my mind is a very long version) is that you are one hell of a writer, who takes the craft very very seriously!

astrid-lindgrenAstrid Lindgren. Seriously, was their ever a girl who needed less permission than Pippi Longstocking? She was stalwart, courageous, a fast friend and a defender against pirates. She was also hysterically funny. Apparently, she caused all sorts of trouble with those who are grand proponents of doing as your told and following the rules. Astrid wrote many other books, and none of her heroines  asked permission.

Fannie-FlaggFanny FlaggFried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe is a tale of women with lots of troubles in their lives and lots of folks telling them what they can and can’t do. You get so involved, it’s not even a question about who it’s proper to love. Love is always proper. Heart, hilarity, and really good barbecue.

Anita DiamantAnita Diamant. In The Red Tent, Ms. Diamant tells the familiar biblical story of Jacob and his children–or, more specifically, Leah, Rachel, Zilpah and Bilhah and their children–through the eyes of daughter Dinah. Turns out men and women tell the same history very differently, and it’s about time the other voice was imagined and heard.

 

Montgomery_LL.M. Montgomery. Lucy  Maud Montgomery lived a life uncomfortably like those of her heroines Anne Of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon. After her mother’s death, she was given by her father to be raised in a loveless home by stern aunts. Instead of bemoaning her lot, she lived in her imagination, and wrote stories about young girls who, through force of their personalities and knowledge that they belong to “the tribe that knows Joseph,” are able to transform the world around them. Her books  have transformed the lives of many many girls the world over since.

writer-JK-Rowling--001J.K. Rowling. We all know the story; the young, single mother on welfare who toiled over a novel it seemed no one would publish. Instead, Harry, Hermione and Ron showed kids and adults the world over how to live in a magical world where good and evil clearly exist, and children are able to affect their own destinies, as well as that of the world around them. Well done, Jo Rowling. Well done.

The Crystal Cave pippi longstocking red tent Friedgreenbook harry potter emilyofnewmoon__span

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