Where did this come from?

notebook

A few days ago, looking for a piece of scratch paper, I picked up a 5″ x 8″ spiral notebook from a desk in the back room. I flipped it open to some curious notes on fairytales – and I cannot remember where they came from. Not from any book I possess, nor from any lecture I remember. Did they come from a blog post? And if so, why did I take the time to jot down two pages of notes without bookmarking the post?

The words were those of a writer who said, “I am eager to show what fairytale techniques have done for my writing and what they can do for yours.”  This is curious, because most of what followed – the “four elements of traditional fairytales” that he or she discussed violate the usual advice given in writing books and seminars.  Here the four elements as I recorded them.

1) Flatness – flat characters (no psychological depth), which allows depth in the reader’s response. Eg., the child who escapes monsters does not grow up to be a neurotic adult. Also, few fairytale characters are named.

2) Abstract –  Few details given. Fairytales tell, they seldom show.

3) Intuitive logic –  “nonsensical sense”  This happened then that. Causality not shown. Events may not be connected except by narrative proximity. But inside that disconnect resides a story that enters and haunts you deeply. Details of fairytales exist apart from “plot” and are a “violation of the rule that things must make sense.” Dreamlike.

4) Normalized magic:  breaks the notion that the more realistic a story element, the more valuable.

All four of these points are accurate statements of fairytale characteristics. The idea that they hook the listener’s imagination to “fill in the blanks” may help explain why fairytales make far better oral narratives than literary fiction.

At the same time, I can’t think of any published fiction that follows such a structure, least of all modern fairytale retellings. For one thing, since the 19th century, psychologizing has been a favorite pastime for almost all lovers of folklore.

The unknown author of these notes made a few more statements I wrote down:

“Every since I was a child, I have been happiest living in the sphere of story.”  ( me too!!!)

“Trickery is the instinct to know when something is wrong.”

“I will end by saying that story is what makes us human.”

Whoever the unknown author is, you have my thanks (a second time) for your most stimulating thoughts on a genre I love!

How weird news teaches us great storytelling

This post was a (literal) coffee-snorter. Be warned, if you have a cup, put it down, and if you’re eating a blueberry muffin, swallow before reading this epic tale of Walmart brigands, trailer park ninjas, the Darwin awards, and other tales of so-called real life as stranger than fiction.

The Red Pen of Doom

Every day, there are real stories in the morning newspaper that make you snort coffee out your nose or choke on a blueberry muffin. Note: This is why journalists call such pieces “muffin chokers.”

Yet the daily weirdness is more than funny. If you dissect these stories, you can learn deep storytelling lessons from the shallow end of the journalism pool.

Here’s a real story that just happened in my state: Man steals RV from Wal-Mart parking lot, leads police on wild chase. Swerves into sleepy little town where he knocks cars into front yards and such, then blasts through a house and crashes. Runs out, strips down to his underwear and invades a home to steal girl clothes. Cops catch him and haul him off.

This is pretty typical of a weird news story, and not simply because it started in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart — and yeah…

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I’m not dead yet

My title, a line from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, came to mind during recent reflections on independent bookstores.

Shakespeare and Company bookstore, Paris. Wikimedia Commons

Shakespeare and Company bookstore, Paris. Wikimedia Commons

I used to go to bookstores to make discoveries. The best were quirky, and I loved to be surprised and find something new to read. My all time favorite was a sci-fi/fantasy specialty store in a low rent strip mall. The store was a labor of love for the owner, who made most of his income trading collectables – signed Robert Heinlein first editions and vintage comic books.

I could walk in and say, “I’m looking for urban fantasy that centers on spirit guides,” or, “I’m in the mood for a quest – got anything that’s not a dumb Tolkien ripoff?” Most of the time, I’d find what I was looking for and have an interesting chat on trends in the genre with someone who was steeped in that world. You never know what you’re going to find in a place like that. Sadly, independents are on the ropes, but as the Pythons put it, they’re not dead yet. Here is a link to indiebound.org, which has a tab at the top right to locate independent booksellers.

We don’t even have to abandon ebooks to shop at indies! In February, 2012, I wrote about The Book Seller, a great independent shop in Grass Valley, that encourages ebook fans to order through their website; that way they get a commission on each sale (the format is .epub, the standard all-but-Amazon format, which can be read on a Nook or any laptop, smartphone, or tablet using the free Nook app).

I’m pretty sure that for just about everyone reading this blog, books are a huge and treasured part of our lives. If anything good has come out of the Amazon-Hachette dispute, it’s information like this which can help me rethink the way I buy books.

As Mark Coker put it, the ideal is “a vibrant ecosystem of multiple competing retailers.” It’s good to know what I can do to help secure such a future.

From indiebound.org

From indiebound.org

Footnote, June 3:  Calmgrove, a blogging buddy, noted in a comment that the initials of my title, I’m Not Dead Yet, form a nice acronym, INDY. In addition to independent bookstores, he says it has something to do with fruit fly genetics – feel free to pursue that with him if you wish…

It’s In His Kiss by Vickie Lester: a book review

IIHKCover5x8final291p copy

Death is a sidewinder. It strikes from a place concealed and unthinkable, triggering a reality completely unexpected. – Vickie Lester

Anne Brown, a New York teacher and author of literary novels is on her way to Palm Springs in the middle of winter. Movie studio bigwigs are flying her out to renew the option on her first novel, a decade out of print. Why do the rich and beautiful people welcome her with open arms? Is it because she’s the out of wedlock daughter of a retired movie mogul?

No, it’s a bit more sinister than that, Cliff, the most beautiful person there, tells Anne. An acting agent, he fills her in and offers to help her navigate the proverbial shark infested waters. And draws her into a whirlwind affair that is hardly the norm for Anne, a confirmed bachelorette, who thinks of herself as the girl that guys just want to be friends with.

It seems too good to be true, but it is, until the following morning, when Cliff is found dead by the side of the road in his Ferrari. It looks like a tragic heart attack until the coroner finds he overdosed on the kind of drug cocktail used to enhance pleasure at the gay sex club up the road. Cliff hardly seemed gay to Anne, and everyone who knew him swears he was straight in every sense of the word.

Filled with grief, anger, and curiosity, Anne begins to ask questions. It soon becomes apparent that everyone at the Palm Springs house that weekend was hiding something. “Was there not one single normal person in all of L.A.?” she wonders. And then a black Escalade tries to chase her down on the freeway…

Vickie Lester, who blogs at Beguiling Hollywood, used to write screenplays, “Horrid, arty, little things,” she says, “that were…optioned again and again, but never made into movies. Perhaps, because they were neither commercial or cinematic?”

Now she has turned her considerable talent and insider’s knowledge of Hollywood into a gripping mystery, with an ending I never saw coming.  It’s In His Kiss is funny and smart and offers an insider’s view of a world of illusion that still fascinates.

The City of Angels was named for beings most often seen by children, visionaries, and the insane. The best novels out of LA are woven with a noir tone – all that sun and all those palm trees have to cast a shadow. Anne Brown and Phillip Marlowe are very different characters, and yet I imagine the spirit of Raymond Chandler is pleased. As a fan of both authors, I know I was!

Vickie Lester at Joshua Tree

Vickie Lester at Joshua Tree

Gabriel García Márquez, 1927-2014

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 2009. Creative Commons

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 2009. Creative Commons

“On a day like today, my master William Faulkner said, ‘I decline to accept the end of man’. I would fall unworthy of standing in this place that was his, if I were not fully aware that the colossal tragedy he refused to recognize thirty-two years ago is now, for the first time since the beginning of humanity, nothing more than a simple scientific possibility. Faced with this awesome reality that must have seemed a mere utopia through all of human time, we, the inventors of tales, who will believe anything, feel entitled to believe that it is not yet too late to engage in the creation of the opposite utopia. A new and sweeping utopia of life, where no one will be able to decide for others how they die, where love will prove true and happiness be possible, and where the races condemned to one hundred years of solitude will have, at last and forever, a second opportunity on earth.”

– Gabriel García Márquez, from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, December 8, 1982

An ambassador for the power of stories

Author Kate DiCamillo says "Story is what makes us human."

Author Kate DiCamillo says “Story is what makes us human.”

I almost skipped the final segment of the PBS Newshour on Friday.  They announced an interview with the newly chosen National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, a position I’d never heard of.  I feared it might involve a discussion of post-Twilight, YA romance.  Fortunately, I stuck around, for the interview was profoundly inspiring.

The new National Ambassador, a position created by the Library of Congress in 2008, is Kate DiCamillo, author of Because of Winn-Dixie and The Tale of Despereaux.  The author of these award winning books for children claims to have been the shyest kid ever.  How did she come out of her shell and become an ambassador?  By telling stories, she says.  “And telling stories helped me connect with the world. And it turned me into somebody who can talk to people, I think.”

This Newberry Award winning author calls herself a late bloomer and kept a notebook where she tracked all 450 rejection letters she got before her first story was accepted.  Over the next two years, as ambassador for children’s literature, she hopes to “remind people of the great and profound joy that can be found in stories, and that stories can connect us to each other, and that reading together changes everybody involved.”

I invite everyone to watch Ms. DiCamillo’s interview.  It’s an upbeat testament to the power of stories and the power of persistence by someone whose life embodies these truths.

10 of the Greatest Essays on Writing Ever Written

I was delighted to find this post on WordPress’s “Freshly Pressed” page where it deserves to be. Here’s a collection of essays on writing, more than half by writers whose names are household words (in literary households) – Robert Frost, Henry Miller, Susan Sontag, T.S. Eliot, Kurt Vonnegut, and Joan Didion among them. They all look compelling. I’m looking forward to starting a piece on structure in fairy tales by the editor of “The Fairy Tale Review.” Enjoy!

Flavorwire

If there’s one topic that writers can be counted on to tackle at least once in their working lives, it’s writing itself. A good thing too, especially for all those aspiring writers out there looking for a little bit of guidance. For some winter inspiration and honing of your craft, here you’ll find ten great essays on writing, from the classic to the contemporary, from the specific to the all-encompassing. Note: there are many, many, many great essays on writing. Bias has been extended here to personal favorites and those available to read online. Also of note but not included: full books on the subject like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Stephen King’s On Writing, and Ron Carlson’s Ron Carlson Writes a Story, or, in a somewhat different sense, David Shields’ Reality Hunger, for those looking for a longer commitment. Read on, and add your own…

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The Eye of God by James Rollins: a book review

The eye of God

In a post in August, It’s mostly insubstantial, I discussed an interview with James Rollins that I read on Sciencethrillers.com.  The title for my post came from some mind-blowing conversations Rollins described with quantum physicists while researching his latest thriller, The Eye of God.  The gist of what Rollins learned involved the insubstantial nature of our apparently solid physical world.  “If you remove all the space within the atoms making up the human body, every person that’s ever lived would fit inside a baseball,” said physicist, Brian Greene.

I heard Rollins speak in September at a writer’s lunch where he gave a lively talk on the nuts and bolts of his process.  Afterwards, I hurried home with a copy of The Eye of God.  Sadly, I didn’t finish the book until this week.  It doesn’t speak well for a thriller when it takes me weeks to “get through” it.

The book opens with a compelling synchronicity between the discovery of an ancient prophecy and the last transmission of a NASA satellite nicknamed “The Eye of God,” launched to study a comet as it passes close to earth.  Before it crashes, the satellite transmits an image of the eastern United States as a ruin of smoking craters.

Astrophysicist, Dr. Jada Shaw, theorizes that dark matter associated with the comet is bending time as well as space in the atmosphere, and the image shows our world in four days time.  Simultaneously, a priest in the Vatican receives a package containing a copy of The Gospel of Thomas, bound in human skin, and a skull inscribed with prophecy of the end of the world in four days.

Soon Dr. Shaw, the priest and his niece, and members of the Sigma Force, a covert group of ex-special forces soldiers, converge on Mongolia, where the Eye of God went down.  An asteroid storm in Antarctica is a prelude to what is coming if the satellite can’t be recovered and if it offers no clue to reversing the space-time distortion that is opening earth’s atmosphere to deadly “near-earth objects.”  Integral to the effort is a legendary black cross, made from an earlier NEO that struck earth.  The cross belonged to St. Thomas the Apostle, who evangelized in Asia, according to the apocryphal “Acts of Thomas” and ancient Christian communities in southern India.

So what’s not to like about the story?

I enjoyed elements of The Eye of God, not the least, an appendix in which Rollins’ discussed what was fact and what was fiction in the book, including a real comet that will pass near the earth this winter.

If it doesn’t break up as it swings by the sun, Comet ISON, one of the brightest comets in history, will pass so close to the earth in November and December that it may be visible during the day.

Comet ISON, via NASA Hubble telescope, will make it's closest pass to the earth on Dec. 28.

Comet ISON, via NASA Hubble telescope, will make it’s closest pass to the earth on Dec. 28.

My biggest problem with The Eye of God is that I never truly felt the danger.  The threat was arcane and not clearly articulated until midway through the book.  The solution (which I won’t give away) remained rather abstract.  The constant reminders of danger and the way out that we find in other page-turners would have helped, as would the disaster film convention of showing a few ordinary people who don’t yet know they are doomed.

Rather than keeping us focused on the real threat, restating it until it was vivid, Rollins threw in distracting subplots which included six major gunfights with Chinese triads, North Korean soldiers, and Mongolian nationalists.  Obstacles while the clock is ticking is a proven way to ramp up tension, but the repetitive nature of these firefights – bad guys who can’t shoot versus outnumbered, crack-shot good guys – was the equivalent of digital special effects at the expense of story in the movies.

The Eye of God received good reviews, especially from established fans of James Rollins. That may be the difference.  This is the ninth Sigma Force novel, and those who read the others are probably bonded with the characters and care more than I if they get shot at.  Next time I read this author, I’ll start at the beginning, though I don’t think that will be any time soon.