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

Mo Willems might be my hero.

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A children’s book can give you a glimpse into your deepest soul. Photo by Michelle Garren Flye.

I remember the first time my son brought home Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Willems from the school library. I loved reading to my kids, but I really never connected with Pigeon. Why he was so popular with my kids, I never really knew. I loved the Frances books, anything by Rosemary Wells, and when they started bringing home little beginning readers like Henry and Mudge, I was in seventh heaven!

But the Pigeon? Every time one of my kids brought one of those home, I just rolled my eyes.

Turns out I missed the point. Pigeon is much deeper and much more shallow at the same time. He’s a philosopher and a spoiled child wrapped into one, which is kind of how I see myself. Maybe I just didn’t like seeing myself on the pages of a children’s book?

How do I know all this about Pigeon? I read an interview with his creator. Check it out here: Mo Willems Interview. (My thanks to my friend Liz for referring me to this article!)

Mo Willems’s admittedly incredible ability to look into my soul and pull a pigeon out of it notwithstanding, he says some very insightful things about the nature of art and creativity and writing. “Books are sculptures” is indeed one of them. What took me most by surprise, though, was the revelation that he’s not just writing to inspire kids. He’s writing to inspire the parents to do and say and live the way they want their kids to do and say and live.

Consider this: “[W}e constantly hear, ‘Our children are the future,’ but we seldom say, ‘Hey we’re the present and it’s incumbent on us to be present.’ So there’s this silliness, but there’s also a, ‘You can do it, too.'”

Thank you, Mo Willems!

I’m 49 years old. I’ve just published my first children’s book (Jessica Entirely by Shelley Gee). I also privately published my first collection of poetry Times and Ties. I’m taking singing lessons and auditioning for plays. I’m inspired by my kids, and my only regret right now is that I’ve never done any of these things before. I didn’t model my life by living my dreams. If anything, they’ve modeled for me by bringing home books for me to read that I wouldn’t normally have read, and introducing me to movies and television and a slew of pets I never would have chosen to bring into my life.

So I’ll presume to add a little to Mr. Willems’s statements. Be inspiring to your children, but don’t be afraid to be inspired by them, too. A family circle is beneficial to all.

Something I wrote:

Jessica smiled in spite of her worries about her friends. They all had friends in town and friends who evacuated and friends who might have lost their homes in the storm. But she had her family right there with her and the idea of helping made her feel much better about things in general. She took a deep breath and followed her family to the kitchen, happier than she ever had been at the prospect of spending an hour or two with them at the table.

Like them or not, you should listen to the poets

If anything has caught me off-guard about today’s political climate, it’s the rising dislike of celebrities and intellectuals. Once upon a time, these were the heroes. Movie stars like James Dean smoked, so everyone had a pack of cigarettes tucked in their rolled up t-shirt sleeve. Jane Fonda said we need more exercise so everyone started aerobics. Remember those “The More You Know” PSAs? They featured everyone from Tom Brokaw to Matthew Perry speaking out about issues like conservation and education. Stars trying to use their star status to make a difference in the world.

In 2016, it felt like all that changed. All of a sudden, conservatives wondered out loud where athletes and movie stars and, God forbid, writers got off having political opinions. And why should they be allowed to speak out about the every day world of politics? Movie stars should just act, singers should just sing, athletes just play their sports (and stand for the National Anthem). The other day, Rob Thomas tweeted that he was shocked to see a reporter’s White House press credentials taken away because he asked the president a question the president didn’t want to be asked. The response Thomas got from fans was less than encouraging in many cases.

But the worst of this is that suddenly writers aren’t supposed to have an opinion. Writers aren’t supposed to speak out against what looks like certain doom. Writers shouldn’t remind the public of what has come before and what it wrought. The press is “fake news” because they are trying to report what’s happening to us. This seems a particularly dangerous attitude, honestly. To prove my point, I’ve compiled a partial list of things writers (mostly in science fiction, but not all) predicted, for want of a better word, in their fiction.

And after reading this, maybe you can understand why I say, listen to the poets. Otherwise, you may live to regret it.

1726 (Jonathan Swift) Gulliver’s Travels predicted the discovery of Mars’s two moons.

1818 (Mary Shelley) Frankenstein predicted organ transplants.

1865 (Jules Verne) From the Earth to the Moon predicted solar sails and lunar modules that launch from Florida and return to earth as splashdown capsules.

1887 (Edward Bellamy) Looking Backward predicted credit/debit cards and shopping malls.

1898 (Morgan Robertson) The Wreck of the Titan: Or, Futility predicted the sinking of the Titanic—by iceberg in the month of April—fourteen years before it happened.

1899 (H.G. Wells) When the Sleeper Wakes predicted motion sensing doors.

1903 (H.G. Wells) The Land Ironclads predicted tanks.

1909 (E.M. Forster) The Machine Stops predicted video chatting.

1910 (Edwin Balmer and William MacHarg) The Achievements of Luther Trant predicted the lie detector test.

1913 (H.G. Wells) The World Set Free predicted the atom bomb.

1923 (H.G. Wells) Men Like Gods predicted phones, email and television.

1924 (J.B.S. Haldane) Daedalus; or Science and the Future predicted in vitro fertilization.

1932 (Aldous Huxley) A Brave New World predicted genetic engineering.

1961 (Robert Heinlein) Stranger in a Strange Land predicted water beds.

1968 (Arthur C. Clarke) 2001: A Space Odyssey predicted the iPad and its use to access news media.

1968 (John Brunner) Stand on Zanzibar predicted satellite tv, violence in schools, and, eerily, President Obama (Obomi was the character’s name). Interestingly, it is set in 2010.

1984 (William Gibson) Neuromancer predicted computer hackers.

1990 (David Brin) Earth predicted broken levees in the Deep South and the meltdown of the Fukushima power plant.

1994 (Tom Clancy) Debt of Honor predicted the use of hijacked jet planes to crash into U.S. government buildings.

Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency has been predicted by everyone from The Simpsons to Philip Roth. In Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Talents, her presidential candidate even used the slogan “Make America Great Again”.

Are these all coincidence? Life imitating art? Possibly, though Stand on Zanzibar and The Wreck of the Titan sound like blatant fortune-telling to me, and how Jonathan Swift could know Mars had two moons in 1726 is beyond me. But what is my point here, anyway? Should Stephen King and J.K. Rowling be allowed to say whatever they want about Donald Trump and the fools who voted for him?

Yeah. Probably. Because true poets have a knack for looking at things a little closer, opening themselves up to the universe a little more, feeling things a little deeper…and seeing things a little clearer than others do. I’m not saying me. I try, but I haven’t gotten there yet. But I do believe we are given poets and prophets and visionaries by a God who wants to help guide us.

And if the overwhelming majority of those poets and prophets and visionaries are saying don’t go there, I suggest we listen.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Take the Plunge: See beyond the stigma of “self-published”

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How to convince a reader to take that leap of faith into your book? Photo by Oliver Sju00f6stru00f6m on Pexels.com

I get it. I’m old enough to remember vanity presses. I remember the indie-publishing phenomenon of The Christmas BoxRemember how quickly indie publishing grew after Richard Paul Evans’s little treasure was discovered by mainstream publishing? Vanity presses became independent presses and developed into KDP and Smashwords, providing a voice for authors who either can’t make it through the gatekeepers of traditional presses or, like me (I like to think, anyway), lost patience with the hoops you must jump through.

I’ve had three books published by two different traditional publishers. In all three cases, I enjoyed the experience of having professional cover designers, editors and book designers. It was invigorating working on a deadline. But at both publishers, my editors eventually left, putting me back at square one of trying to sell my book to another editor.

I’d rather sell it to you, my readers. But finding you is another process. Gaining your faith is yet another. I’ve been doing this for eight years now. My first book, Secrets of the Lotus, was published by Lyrical Press (now the digital first arm of Kensington Press) on July 5, 2010. I started this blog around then, too. Eight years, fourteen books, and countless blog posts later, I’ve got a few devoted readers. They’re the ones who’ll take the plunge no matter what I put out.

So I better make it good.

I think I’ve managed to improve both my writing and my publishing skills. I edit my own work now, but I have worked with enough professional editors so I have pretty good idea of how to find the holes in my own plots. I put all my manuscripts through a thorough proofreading at least twice by me and I have some beta readers who’ll look over drafts for me, too. I’ve learned a lot about the formatting of both ebooks and print. My self-published books look good now. Clean and pretty with clearly delineated breaks and chapters. And my covers are almost always professionally designed.

Now, I’m working on the marketing. That’s the really tough part. That’s the final push every author—traditional or self—must somehow summon to convince a reader that their book is worth reading. That’s why we query book reviewers and write blogs, why we spend hours writing guest posts for online book tours and tend to all our social media sites from Facebook and Twitter to Instagram and Goodreads.

It’s all to push you, dear reader, over the edge of a cliff and into the world of our writing.

Go ahead. Jump. If you don’t, you might miss out on the next self-publishing phenomenon.

 

End of Year Retrospective: Why I Write

This is the time of year I look back on what I’ve accomplished and wonder—yet again—why do I bother writing romance novels?

My readers number in the dozens. And most of those are friends. (Wonderful friends!)

I could probably have a very successful career as a journalist or a librarian if I dropped the novelist pretense. (I do have degrees for both.)

If I give up writing romance novels I’d have lots more time for other stuff. Fun stuff. Like kite flying. Or boating. Or acting. (Did you catch that I was in a local production of A Christmas Carol?)

(Have you subscribed to my email list?)

And yet…the truth of the matter is, I don’t really write for readers. I write for me. I even publish for me because I like seeing my writing in book form. It’s satisfying in a weird, probably narcissistic way. But it’d be great to have more readers. It’d even be great to make a living at this thing. To be a best-selling author with Hollywood fighting to turn my books into movies. To be able to donate money to charities and take care of my family and set my parents up in a nice house, preferably closer or at least be able to get to see them more—all that is the dream.

However, as I close out my seventh year as a novelist with thirteen romance novels under my belt, I am faced with the near certainty that that’s not likely to happen.

(Remember to subscribe to my email list.)

Let’s face it, the days of the reclusive novelist who can sit at home and write and send their work out to the publishing world to sell are over. Everyone writes books these days. Actors, politicians, psychiatrists, musicians, librarians, bloggers, YouTubers—I could go on, but you get the picture.

The pipes are literally clogged with all the books all these non-writers are writing. How on earth is little ol’ non-flashy me gonna attract attention to my independently published romances with all those flashy covers “written” by all the flashy personalities taking up all that shelf space?

Gotta try, though, don’t I? (Email list sign up here.)

So, I’m turning over a new leaf in the new year. I’m working out an actual marketing plan and exploring other avenues for publishing. I’m looking at what’s worked and what hasn’t and what I’ve never tried before. And I’m kicking it all off with a newsletter that launches on January 1. If you want to keep up with what’s happening with me, you might want to sign up. Here’s a link to do that: Email list sign up.

Oh, and even if you don’t really care what’s happening with me and my career, you might want to sign up anyway since I’m giving away a $50 Amazon gift card to one lucky subscriber. Want that sign up link again? Here you go.

Happy Launch Day, Movie Magic! (Check out the reading at the end…)

It’s October 31, and that means the launch of my new book, Movie Magic. I so enjoyed writing this one, and I’m so hoping you will enjoy reading it.

Today, we celebrate. At the end of the day (about 5 p.m.), I’ll draw names from all my commenters for prizes. Everything from signed copies of Movie Magic to Amazon gift cards. Every comment is eligible, and multiple entries are encouraged.

By the way, Ann Marie was the winner of the special edition Sleight of Hand perfume from Waft.com. I’ll be in touch with her to arrange delivery!

I leave you with this. It’s me, reading from chapter one of Movie Magic. I’m not big on public performances, but I really believe in this book.

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.