What is Utopia?

As a writer, I get to imagine things all the time, but one thing for me has always been sort of amorphous. What, exactly, would Utopia be like? I can imagine a place with green fields where everyone does their fair share, but eventually I start seeing flaws in the system. For instance, I don’t like working outdoors, I tend to kill plants, and I hate bugs. Would I be expected to help grow crops the same way my brother, who has a green thumb, would? And as a librarian, I wonder, would people who don’t care about books be expected to help me take care of them? How can you be a caretaker for something you have no care for? Who’s making all these rules, anyway?

Usually, I end up deciding I’d rather just retreat onto a mountaintop or desert island with the people I love most and have supplies air dropped to me. But what kind of liberal does that make me if I can’t even picture a Utopia that works?

Today I read this wonderful opinion column by Ross Douthat in the New York Times called Watership Down and the Crisis of Liberalism and I practically clapped my hands. If you’ve never read Watership Down, the classic tale by Richard Adams, you must. Go get a copy. I’ll wait. Okay, maybe not, because it is like 500 pages long, but Watership Down was a masterpiece, and Douthat hits the nail on the head with what makes a true Utopia and how Adams created one with this sentence:

And what makes the regime the rabbits are founding good — and successful, but first and foremost good — is the integration of the different virtues, the cooperation of their different embodiments, their willing subordination to one another as circumstances require.

Bam. Right there. Each rabbit that embarks on the quest to found a new home after they lost their old home to ecoterrorism (a subdivision) has a unique skill that they offer to the group. The leader, the strong, the religiously gifted, the athletic, the intelligent, the creative—all have something to offer the group.

So that’s what Utopia is to me. It’s a world in which we all have our unique gifts and they’re all valued. Imagine a world where you could find your gift and pursue it and contribute to the world in your own way. If a teacher’s offering of education, a doctor’s offering of healing, a policeman’s offering of safety, a politician’s offering of governing, a writer’s offering of…whatever we offer—it was all valued. Every skill, from acting to playing a sport or inventing, all the way to trash collecting and housecleaning.

Isn’t that what we all want? A world we can live in without fear of someone taking what is ours? Our job, our belongings, our happiness. In a world where everyone already had theirs, maybe that wouldn’t be such a problem. To me, that is Utopia.

(Side note: The only other place I’ve ever seen a Utopia that looks like it could work is Starfleet in the Star Trek universe.)

But what is Utopia to you? In our highly divided culture today, maybe this isn’t what everyone wants. Utopian dreams come to us all, though. I’d love to hear yours.

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Utopian perfection? Photo by Michelle Garren Flye

Trump Tilts at Windmills

They might be giants…they aren’t, but they might be.

Very seldom these days do the worlds of great literature and American politics coincide, but Donald Trump’s recent attack on windmills cannot help reminding me of the passage in the great novel about an insane man, Don Quixote.

Don Trump says, “They kill birds, they cause cancer, you can’t depend on them to power your television for an entire night because if the wind’s not blowing, there’s no power.”

Don Quixote says, “They’re giants and I shall slay them.”

But where is Trump’s Sancho? Where is the voice of reason to tell him that they aren’t actually giants, but very useful and beneficial machines? If we continue the parallel, Sancho would probably be Trump’s voters. The ones he’s promised will benefit if they follow him. Yet Trump’s Sancho doesn’t seem capable of pointing out that the windmills are not actually giants. So, it would seem, Trump Quixote is destined to break his lance without even a word of warning from his companion.

We might laugh at this. Cervantes certainly intended you to laugh at his misguided knight and even at Sancho. But if we’re stuck in Don Trump, or the Man of Queens, we better hope there’s a Knight of the White Moon out there somewhere who will defeat Trump and make him promise to go home to be cured of his madness.

Otherwise, we may be doomed to subscribe to Quixote’s belief near the end of the first volume that knights errant “are exempt from the application of all laws and statutes, that for them law is their sword, statutes are their spirit, and edicts and proclamations are their will and desire.”

Sounds uncomfortably familiar.

No apologies: I write what I write.

close up of tree against sky

Romance is a window on the reader’s soul, not the writer’s. Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It’s a truth for most romance writers, I think. Our friends and family are almost afraid to read our books. As if they might find out something more about us than what they want.

Why don’t you write something else? I have this great idea for a book you could write.

It could be funny.

I could almost laugh.

Why am I amused? The reason is simple. Any good writing lays your soul bare because you do tell secrets about yourself. It’s the only real way to make your writing read true to another person’s soul. The trick is to write it so no one knows what is true and what is fiction. And I can guarantee you, even those who know me best don’t know what’s true and what’s fiction in my books.

I always say I’m never in my books. And it’s true. I’m not a character in my books. But I am in there. I’m in every word and phrase I write. When you hold my book, you are holding a part of my soul. Is it a window onto my everyday wants and desires and loves? No. Like all writing, and especially fiction, my words are filtered through the reader’s experiences and is more likely to reveal something about them than me.

I guess that’s why I say, no apologies. I write what I write. If you  have the courage to read it, that’s great. If not, please understand when I chuckle a little when you suggest I write something different. I love you, but my visceral answer to such a suggestion is an unequivocal “no.”

In other news…

I’m on Book Reviews by Jasmine today promoting Becoming Magic by talking about what I’d do on my day off if I worked in show business in Hollywood. As you might expect, it’s magical!

And on Smashwords and its affiliates, Close Up MagicBook 1 in the Sleight of Hand series, is FREE just in time for the holidays! Read it if you dare!

Begin at the Beginning

IMG_5147You know how you have a story to tell sometimes and you can’t figure out where to start? And then some smartass says “Begin at the beginning.” That’s not always easy, is it? Because maybe you start with waking up that morning and then you realize that you were late because you had a hangover and you had a hangover because your best friend from college was in town last night and you met and had drinks, but to begin with she was in town because she’s getting married… Well, maybe you get the idea.

My point is, finding the beginning of a novel is sort of like that. Sometimes you kick off your novel with a great first line. Like I had this awesome first line for my current work-in-progress. At least, I thought it was pretty good. Want to hear it? “I’m doing Dickens.” So I started there and proceeded…and realized pretty soon after that, damn it, that’s not the beginning of the story. It’s actually about a chapter in.

I tried flashbacks and having the characters discuss how they got to the point they were at, but I knew it wasn’t going to work. I would just have to sacrifice that perfect first line.

So now I no longer have the perfect first line. However, I do have what I feel is a pretty good beginning. I thought I might share it with you. This one will be a Christmas romance. It’s tentatively titled Dickens Magic, and may or may not be a part of the Sleight of Hand series. It’s still early, and I’m toying with making it a standalone. Tell me what you think in the comments!

Kate Joiner pulled another tray of hot biscuits from the oven, tossed four into a basket, and hit the bell for the waitress to pick up before turning back to make sure everything was running well in the rest of the kitchen. It was. Like a well-oiled machine. Her well-trained kitchen staff knew the drills perfectly. Even a busy summer brunch rush couldn’t throw them off.

If only her wait staff were as dependable. She frowned at the basket of biscuits still sitting on the counter, picked it up and stalked around the partition ready to scold whichever teenage waitress was neglecting her duties. However, as she rounded the corner, a young girl dressed in jeans and a “Book Marker Café” t-shirt almost ran into her.

“Quinn!” Kate gasped, stumbling backward and catching the girl in the same movement. “What’s the meaning of this? You guys all disappear during the busiest hour—”

She stopped, her eyes narrowing. “Why are you giggling?”

Quinn was undoubtedly laughing, but her eyes wore a more cautious, almost shocked look. As if she were amused but wasn’t sure she really should be. She got control of herself at Kate’s stern look, however, and swallowed hard. “It’s just—the…out there. There’s a woman in her nightgown.”

“Her nightgown?” Kate peered past the girl and her heart collapsed. There was indeed a woman in her nightgown. Alex’s mom. Mrs. Lawrence. One of the most fashionable women in town who seldom ever left her home without lipstick now sat at one of Kate’s front tables in a lace nightgown, her hair unbrushed and no makeup at all on her translucent skin. Kate nearly dropped the biscuits. “Oh my God.”

“We didn’t…know what to do. The other customers are pointing and whispering and some of them are leaving.” Quinn’s voice held no trace of laughter now. Evidently Kate’s reaction had convinced her which side of amusement she needed to come down on.

Kate took a deep breath. “Get the others in line. Take care of the other customers. Pack up orders to go. Give it to them for free if they don’t want to pay. I don’t care. Just, for God’s sake, don’t let anyone else point and laugh at her.” A lump rose in her throat and she swallowed hard. Then she straightened her back and hurried over to Patty Lawrence’s table, thinking the whole way about the mother of her best friend who’d made her chocolate chip cookies and given her rides to play rehearsals with Alex and had, more than once, organized a cast party for them. The sweetness of the memories gave her strength.

“Mrs. Lawrence.” She smiled as she set the biscuits on the table in front of the woman. “It’s so good to see you.”

Mrs. Lawrence looked up, blinked once and then smiled back. “Katie! It’s been ages.” She looked around. “What are you doing here?”

She doesn’t know where she is. She doesn’t know this is my café. Kate struggled for control. “Oh, Mrs. Lawrence. Don’t you remember? I went in on the business with my mother. She runs the book store and I run the café?”

“Oh. Oh, yes. Of course.” Mrs. Lawrence nodded, but she still looked a little befuddled. “Strange, isn’t it? Having books and a café? All…mixed up. Sort of like New York.” She spread her napkin primly over satin lap. “Well, I’ll start with coffee. The biscuits smell wonderful. Did I order them?”

Katie reached across and touched the woman’s hands. “Those are on the house. My specialty, Mrs. Lawrence. Tell me, have you spoken to Alex recently?”

“Oh, he’s so busy with his plays and things on Broadway.” The older woman fluttered her hands as if speaking of her son’s foibles and hobbies and not the Broadway career he’d built for himself. “I keep saying I’m going to go up and see this last one.” She leaned across the table, lowering her voice confidentially. “You know he plays a gay man, don’t you? But he’s not gay.”

“No, he’s not gay.” Katie squeezed her hands gently.

“This is a very nice place you have here, dear. It’s a little drafty, though.” Mrs. Lawrence shivered. “Maybe you could turn up the heat?”

“Turn up the heat?” Katie blinked. It was June and the thermometer was already at seventy-five degrees when she got up that morning. “Um…sure.” Seeing her chance, she half rose. “But maybe I can get you a sweater or something, Mrs. Lawrence. To keep you warm until—”

“A sweater? Don’t be ridiculous. I’m wearing my winter coat.” As she spoke, Mrs. Lawrence looked down and a horrible change came over her face. She looked back at Kate, then back down at her nightgown, covered her face and began to sob quietly. Kate helplessly knelt in front of her, put her arms around the woman and held her. And even as she did so, she thought, Now I have to call Alex.

****

Interview with a magician: R.J. Lewis

With no further ado, then, please help me welcome R.J. Lewis (Arjay) to my blog.

Arjay interviewMGF: You started out as a puppeteer, went from there to performing magic and Broadway. You’ve written screenplays and been in movies and on television, and you’re now a resident magician for Princess Cruise Lines. I hesitate to ask, but how does all that lead you to write dark fantasy and horror?

Arjay: Actually I write in several genres, wherever the story takes me. My main series is a collection of murder mysteries that feature a psychic detective who is a professor of parapsychology. I have two books released in that series, Fire In The Mind and Seduction In The Mind. The Muse is a stand-alone, inspired by my writing of a short story The Dark, which appeared in H.P. Lovecraft Magazine of Horror. I used to avoid scary books, as I was a bit of a sensitive child. However, I have been won over by the writing of Dean Koontz and Stephen King. As a reader I just get pulled in so strongly by the writing and the excitement of the situations, despite the dark overtones.

MGF: Have you always wanted to be a writer?

Arjay: My entire life I have been surrounded by writers. My father wrote a novel, which I never saw, and the manuscript is long gone. I have written plays and live shows since I was fifteen or sixteen. Finally two of my mentors and friends were writers, Parke Godwin and Marvin Kaye. I learned early on the discipline of the work and the joy of when you have a good writing day.

MGF: You’ve mentioned the “call of the odd” to me. I used to write a little horror myself (not very successfully), and I’m still a consumer of horror, so I have an idea what this phrase means to me. What does it mean to you as a writer?

Arjay: I am attracted to the paranormal. Which is interesting, as I am a major skeptic. Since ancient times we have been handed down stories of unusual creatures and concepts that defy explanation, as well as tales of those with extraordinary gifts. I think there is a desire within us as a species to explore those concepts, and fiction is the perfect outlet. We can create entire worlds, but as writers we must people them with characters that will appeal and pull the reader into the story. If so, the reader will go anywhere you want to take them and they will enjoy the ride.

MGF: I have to ask, since it’s the anniversary of Harry Houdini’s death. Some people think performing magic led him to a belief in the occult and then to a desire to debunk fake psychics in his quest to find the real thing. Do you think your career in magic affected your decision to write about odd things like psychic detectives and parasitic creatures?

Arjay: Absolutely. On one hand I am a complete skeptic, and can debunk people who bend spoons and “read minds” with ease. But underneath, a part of me wishes to believe in the impossible. And that part is what makes me strive in my act to create effects that will leave the audience wondering. My act is the perfect counterpoint. On one hand, I tell the audience it is all a trick, but then I do things that leave them unsure.

MGF: The Muse was definitely part of that “call of the odd”. I know there’s a little story about how it came to be written. Can you tell us?

Arjay: In June of 1999, I had the desire to write a horror tale about a night guard who saw things in the dark—that were actually there. I had been a guard in my youth and always found the dark places in the warehouse I worked creepy and for some reason those feelings came to the forefront with that story. It wasn’t until the next day, when I read the news that Stephen King had been hit by a truck in Maine. I was overcome with an odd sense that something needed that story to be written and since he couldn’t, it moved to me. The thought stuck with me and I wondered what it would be like if there was something—an actual physical entity that could make people write—and not just write, but write best sellers. That concept became The Muse.

MGF: Okay, so your characters in The Muse go through some pretty dark stuff. Do you ever write something and wonder, Where did that come from?

Arjay: For me that sort of sums up that entire book. My villain in The Muse is a famous writer who is secretly a serial killer, and who has a symbiont living within him that influences him. I knew that the creature had to leave him, but I didn’t expect him to devolve into a monstrous killing machine. A lot of the book revealed itself to me as I went, and I kept saying “I didn’t see that coming” which was great fun.

MGF: I have to admit I haven’t started your series about the psychic detective (Fire in the Mind, Seduction in the Mind, Reunion in the Mind)—yet. They are definitely on my list. These books are coming out pretty rapidly. June, September and November of this year respectively. Any chance you’re going to take a break and let us readers catch up?

Arjay: I have six books in that series already written, so I intend to release the next three next year, fairly quickly as well. I have over a dozen finished manuscripts and I want to start to release them to build momentum and establish myself as a writer. After that I will have to write the new ones, so that will slow down the release a lot. However, I have rough outlines for eighteen In The Mind books, which will not only cover the lead character’s growth but the ups and downs of his relationship with the female lead.

MGF: So your first book was published in June of this year and you already have a backlist. You obviously write a lot. What is your writing routine like?

Arjay: I write every day and usually block out nine to noon for writing new material. I live on the cruise ship, The Ruby Princess , which allows me to wander to various place I have to write, even outside in a deck chair. In the late afternoon, I will do rewrites on books that are getting cleaned up for the copy editor. If I have a release date looming, I put in evening hours as well.

MGF: Not that you need to, but because it starts tomorrow—any chance you’ll be joining National Novel Writing Month?

Arjay: My daughter, also a writer, is rising to that challenge. My rule is that I do not start a new book while one is sitting half done. This is why I have over a dozen finished novels. I have a book that I must turn my attention to in the In The Mind series, and I have a release on November 20 of Reunion In The Mind, so I must focus on getting that work finalized. However I will attempt to raise my word count for the month.

MGF: Finally, thank you very much for being my special guest today. It means a lot to have you here. I know my readers can go to your website (http://arjaylewis.com) to find out more about you and your novels. Anything else you’d like to include?

Arjay: Yes, I want to take a moment to praise YOUR writing. I went through your novel, Movie Magic all in one day and it is a great read. My complaint with many romance novels is that they sometime can be slow—often as a device to build the amorous tension. However, your book takes off like a rocket and keeps going, with vivid descriptions and fully developed characters, plus a four act structure that kept me turning pages. Since I have a background in magic and filmmaking, you really got the “feel” of what it is like to work in those industries. Plus the male lead is a magician! What more could I want?

What more indeed? Again, many thanks to Arjay for taking the time to answer my questions (and read Movie Magic). I’m looking forward to reading the In the Mind series and I highly recommend The Muse to anyone who enjoys horror. It’s fast-paced, horrifying and fun. And the twist ending caught even me off guard. Check out Arjay’s author page here: https://www.amazon.com/Arjay-Lewis/e/B071P9NND3/ref=dp_byline_cont_book_1

 

Plastic fiction: What happens when writers give up on soul

Three years ago, Ursula K. Le Guin gave an impassioned speech in which she basically implored writers to write what they wanted to write and not what the publishing industry told them to write. She asked that literature in all forms return to being considered an art form. “Books aren’t just commodities,” she said.

I’ve often wondered if I would sell out if someone offered me the opportunity to sign with a big publisher that would basically guarantee my book would be a bestseller with an awesome marketing plan and everything all taken care of—but I had to write a book the publisher wanted with the plot all spelled out for me. Would I do it? Would I sell out? Would I turn out a plastic fiction book with no soul and no art just to gain readers?

I can’t answer that question. I fear I might. It’d probably be easy enough to write if I didn’t have to come up with the plot myself. And I have a respectable backlist now. Surely I should consider that in the equation. If I gained lots of readers with my plastic fiction—readers who enjoyed my style of writing and who would then consume my other books—wouldn’t it be worth it? But then, too, I’d be feeding the plastic fiction industry that has taken over the publishing world and made it more difficult for writers to be the artists they are meant to be.

Not sure you know what I mean by plastic fiction? Oh yes, you do. It’s especially prevalent in my chosen genre at the moment. For a while it was vampire romances (which has now morphed to include werewolves and shapeshifters and lots of other paranormals). I’m not saying these are all bad. I’ve even read a few that are exceptionally good. But those can be hard to find. And then there’s the fifty-shades phenomenon that is reflected in everything from content (way more explicit than just a few years ago) to covers (haven’t you noticed the trend to monochromatic still life since Christian Grey’s silk tie?).

I think the surge in independent publishing has been a reaction to writers trying to avoid the plastic fiction publishing industry. I’m proud to be a part of that surge. I love what I write, and I love publishing my little bits of art. They aren’t the highest quality—maybe they’re made of aluminum instead of gold or silver—but they aren’t plastic, either. I know this because they come from my heart and contain bits of my soul.

Literary fiction authors are boring intellectuals with no imagination.

Ha! That got your attention, didn’t it?

Before I get slammed by literary fiction authors, please understand that I don’t actually mean that. I have read literary fiction I LOVE. I’ve also read some that I  hate. It happens, just like it does with genre—even (and possibly especially) romance, my own preferred genre.

The difference between literary authors and genre authors is that too often genre authors will just sit back and take abuse about our chosen style of writing. “It’s simple and easy,” says the literary author. A horror author replies **crickets** and gruesomely kills the literary author off in his next book. “It’s all about sex, sex, sex,” says the literary author. The romance author replies, “What? You don’t like sex? Of course it’s about sex.” But it’s not. “I can’t imagine reading anything genre,” says the literary author. “What the hell’s the matter with you, then?” says Me.

Seriously, I’m sick of it. As a librarian, I encourage reading. Period. Read what you want to read, but JUST READ. Our society as a whole is becoming less informed, less literate—and less tolerant of those with other viewpoints. A really great way to expose yourself to other viewpoints is reading. Here’s a beginner’s list of ten novels from various genres you should read now. Like, go to Amazon and download them to your Kindle because if you haven’t read them, you’re missing out.

  1. Watership Down by Richard Adams
  2. Princess Academy by Shannon Hale
  3. The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver
  4. Nightbird by Alice Hoffman
  5. Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe
  6. The White Dragon by Anne McCaffrey
  7. The Castle in the Attic by Elizabeth Winthrop
  8. Swan Song by Robert McCammon
  9. Dune by Frank Herbert
  10. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

You’ll notice there are all different reading levels, genre and literary fiction included. My point with this post is that if you’re reading, you’re doing a great thing for yourself and for the world. And if you’re a writer, read what you want to read, write what you want to write and stop giving other writers a hard time. And if you’re a genre writer, STOP turning the other cheek. What you write is not less because of the genre. Only the quality of the writing can make it that.