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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What’s the Date? Writing for a Different Season

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Charles Dickens began writing A Christmas Carol in October 1843. It was published December 19, 1843 and sold 6,000 copies by Christmas.

One of the things I used to love about reading Stephen King books was the way he would put in the dates of when he started the book versus when it was published. Cujo, for instance, was September 1977 through March 1981. Three and a half years he spent on that book.

I think I must know how he felt when he got the idea. It was September and, in Maine, at least, the season is fall. (In eastern N.C., it’s hurricane season.) The dead leaves were skittering across the pavement leaving a wet smell of decay behind, and all the sounds were louder, crisper. Like the bark of a dog. A really big dog.

Of course, that’s all conjecture, and far from how I conceive my own ideas. I decided to write Dickens Magic right after I starred as “Woman 3” in our community theatre’s production of A Christmas Carol. One problem. There’s no time to write around Christmas. Seriously. National Novel Writing Month takes place in November for a reason.

So I ended up putting it off starting the book until spring. By then I’d gained some more stage experience but the Christmas spirit was worn down and put away until this year. I’m only starting to want to put that spirit back on. So how do you write about Christmas in seventy-, eighty-, and ninety-degree weather?

It’s a question every writer eventually has to answer. How do you put yourself in another time? It helps to think of the things you like about that time—sights, smells, sounds. I listened to a lot of Christmas carols, which actually helped me with the magic show at the end of the book. It also helps that snow isn’t really a thing here in eastern N.C., and especially not at Christmas. You might see some in January or February, but not December.

And of course I have to thank Charles Dickens. His story is timeless in more ways than one. It does the soul good no matter what time of year you read it. Considering he sort of self-published it (and did not make the fortune he should have), it does make sense that I would feel a sort of kinship with him about this story.

So, though I didn’t keep exact track of my writing, I think I can guess what the dates at the end of Dickens Magic would be. March 2018-October 31, 2018.

Four Days to Becoming Magic: What do I hope to accomplish?

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Yesterday I uploaded my files to Createspace, KDP and Smashwords. A few tiny bumps in the process gave me plenty of time to reflect.

What do I hope to accomplish with this book?

It reminded me of the best writing advice I’ve ever been given: Make sure you have a clear goal for each and every scene you write. How does that scene or chapter help move your story along? Before I got that advice, I’d taken as gospel the “just write” theology of writing. Well, just writing can get you into literary holes and take you down paths you never intended. You’ll end up backtracking and deleting a good bit of whatever you “just write”. (I know a lot of plotters are out there shaking their heads at my “pantsing” attitude, but it’s the way I write.) If you have a clear idea of what your scene will accomplish, you’ll stay on track much better.

So what does that have to do with what I hope to accomplish with this book? Well, I think of each and every book I put out there as a chapter in my life. So many chapters of you life are not within your control. But some are. And each book I put out is something I control. What is my goal with this one?

I’ve given up on the getting famous thing. Not every writer is Stephen King. I’ve given up on getting rich. Not every writer is Nicholas Sparks. I doubt I’m writing blockbuster movies here because I’m not J.K. Rowling. I’m not a literary pioneer like Jack Kerouac. And yet, I can’t give up on the hope that my writing has a place out there. Somewhere.

This year is a year of change for me. My oldest graduated and starts college in the fall. I’ll go from being in charge of most of his life to having only the influence of a (hopefully) trusted advisor—though in truth I’ve been making that transition for a couple of years now. We’re in the process of transforming our home into something we actually enjoy living in. My office is nearly at the point of being my dream space now.

And my writing changed.

In the past, I’ve often followed the formulaic manly hero/submissive heroine (not always, but my characters usually had some of those characteristics). I’m proud to say I fought that tendency in Becoming Magic. I want to see a change in the romance genre. I feel like we’ve swung too far the other way of things by accepting casual references to marginal practices into our genre. In today’s world, romance heroines need to take charge of their lives and loves. This is, after all, what our daughters may read.

So yeah. That’s what I’m hoping to accomplish with my writing and this particular book. In my own little corner of my genre, I hope I will make a difference. In a way, Becoming Magic marks my emergence from a chrysalis of sorts. Though only time will tell if I’m a butterfly or just a stunted caterpillar.

NaNoWriMo wrap up: The big secret.

I’ve spent a day recovering from National Novel Writing Month and I’m happy to report that I did it. I wrote 50,000 words in my third novel of the Synchronicity trilogy and I won. What did I win? Well, this:

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Which is really just a fancy way of saying I can feel huge accomplishment in the fact that I spent a month writing and not procrastinating. Because, as we all (especially my high school chemistry teacher) know: Procrastination is the thief of time. Especially for writers.

Every time I do this to myself, I think I’ll come out of November knowing what’s so magical about National Novel Writing Month. If you survive it and actually manage to stick with it and hit the goal, you feel like you should know something more than what you did when you started. You should be privy to some spectacular secret that J.K. Rowling and Stephen King knew and chose not to tell you.

Guess what?

There’s no secret. There’s not even any real magic.

The purpose of National Novel Writing Month is to serve as a reminder of what J.K. Rowling and Stephen King actually did tell us. Writing is fricking hard work. And the only way to accomplish anything is to stick the hell with it. Every single day. Pounding the keys and writing and rewriting and beating your head against your desk if that’s what it takes to loosen the words up. Writing sucks. Writing is like flying. Writing is the ultimate in time-sucking, frustrating, awe-inspiring (for you if nobody else), wasteful, necessary vocation in the world.

And there you have it. It’s a vocation. A job. It’s work. And that’s what the secret is. If what you write is worth it to you, you’ve got to write it. Even if nobody else ever reads it and you drive yourself nuts getting it out of your head and onto paper.

Because anything worth having is never, ever easy.

Disregarding the Oracles

I love science fiction. As early as the 1800s, science fiction authors were predicting today’s everyday things like motion-sensing doors and credit cards. Pretty commonplace by today’s standards, but imagine how out-of-this-world it must have seemed when Jules Verne described his “phonotelephote” which allowed “the transmission of images by means of sensitive mirrors connected by wires”. And yet today we take things like Skype and FaceTime for granted.

Other predictions have hit close to the mark as well. H.G. Wells predicted the atomic bomb. Tom Clancy wrote about a terrorist attack that was very similar to September 11. Writers have predicted everything from the World Wide Web to skywriting and lunar modules launching from Florida. So what is my point?

Yesterday I happened on this petition: Writers on Trump. It said many of the same things I have felt for most of this election season, which is, basically, that Donald Trump as president of the United States would be a disaster. I’ve kept my political views off this blog for the largest portion of the election season, but I’m crossing the line now. Here it goes.

This petition, which I did add my name to, is signed by some of today’s leading writers. Bestselling authors. Household names. Stephen King. Amy Tan. Jane Smiley. The authors whose names are bigger than the titles of their works. The ones whose new releases have long reserve list even though the library splurged and bought thirteen copies.

Today’s oracles.

Writers see the world differently. Writers observe, but they also influence. When Aldous Huxley wrote about mood-enhancing drugs in 1932, perhaps it sparked the invention of anti-depressants? But it is very difficult to understand how Jonathan Swift in 1735 could predict that Mars actually had two moons, a fact that was not discovered until 1877.

What are today’s writers predicting? Dystopia seems more prevalent than Utopia these days. Apocalyptic futures abound. Are these prophecies unavoidable, self-fulfilling or just warnings of what might be?

The Writers on Trump petition is pretty damn clear, and here’s the part you may want to pay attention to:

“Because the rise of a political candidate who deliberately appeals to the basest and most violent elements in society, who encourages aggression among his followers, shouts down opponents, intimidates dissenters, and denigrates women and minorities, demands, from each of us, an immediate and forceful response…we, the undersigned, as a matter of conscience, oppose, unequivocally, the candidacy of Donald J. Trump for the Presidency of the United States.”

Warning or self-fulfilling prophecy? History will decide.

Writing about Writing: My Year in Review

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Today I looked at my bookshelves. You see, I have a new book to put on them. My brother-in-law gave me one of the best books ever written about writing. Stephen King’s On Writing. I’ve read excerpts but never the whole thing, and I’ve never owned my own copy, so I was thrilled to get it. Let me share one of my favorite excerpts from the book with you:

“You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair—the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. … Come to it any way but lightly.” — Stephen King, On Writing

I LOVE that quote. It hits the heart of my writing experience every time I read it. When I sit down at my computer, I assess my own ambitions for my writing. Maybe I have an idea I can’t wait to tap into my computer. Maybe I’m ready to get lost in that other world. Maybe I’m ready to try, anyway. Or maybe I just want to update my blog or maybe I’m…not. King goes on to say:

“…it’s writing, damn it, not washing the car or putting on eyeliner. If you can take it seriously, we can do business. If you can’t or won’t, it’s time for you to close the book and do something else.”

On the days when I know I can’t take my writing seriously, I do find other things to do. If I know all I’m going to be doing is surfing the net or (worse) posting inane comments on Facebook all day, I go do something else useful. I’ve taken up cataloging my kids’ school library during these “off hours”, and I’ve found that I am far better off when I return to the writing I’m never very far away from.

So much for King. What really caught my attention when I looked at my bookshelves was another book about writing by Eudora Welty, also titled On Writing. I admit, I’ve never read this book. I bought it way back as a sentimental investment. I met Ms. Welty once, way back at some young authors’ conference or other. She was very old, and I’d never read anything she’d ever written, but she was what I knew I wanted to be: a published, respected writer. I was curious. Did she see writing as seriously as King does? I flipped through the pages and eventually came across this quote, which, to me, seems to indicate she does:

“We have the writer’s own vision of everything in the world when we place his novel in the center. Then so much is clear: how he sees life and death, how much he thinks people matter to each other and to themselves, how much he would like you to know what he finds beautiful or strange or awful or absurd, what he can do without, how well he has learned to see, hear, touch, smell—all as his sentences go by and in their time and sequence mount up. It grows clear how he imposes order and structure on his fictional world; and it is terribly clear, in the end, whether, when he calls for understanding, he gets any.” –Eudora Welty, On Writing

The last line of that rather lengthy quote gave me chills. Don’t we all want understanding at the end of the book? As I scanned the pages of Welty’s book on writing, I noticed she explores the relationship between reader and writer in a much clearer manner than I’ve ever seen before. In her many years of writing, Ms. Welty obviously established a very good understanding with her readers.

Over the course of the past year, I’ve grown a lot as a writer. I’ve discovered that just because I write books I want to write doesn’t mean that everybody will want to read them. I’ve discovered that even when they get published and read, my books won’t always establish that connection with the reader that I strive for. And yet, if I’m going to ask my readers to take me seriously as a writer, I have to, as King advises, never come to it lightly. I have to approach writing as a business. It’s a business you have to stick with, you have to work at, and the you must, at all costs, constantly strive to get better at it if you hope to connect with your readers.

This year, I’ve written a few blog posts I was sort of proud of about writing. Nothing compared to King or Welty, but I haven’t had their careers yet. Most of these are either about my impressions of what writing is like on this side of success or were responses to articles I’d read about writing or publishing. In case you missed my brilliance the first time around, I thought I’d include links to my top 10 favorite blog posts of 2012:

1. “Embrace your velvet-cloaked vampire: Go ahead and publish that book”

2. “How to make your setting into a character…and why you should”

3. “Self-published and proud of it: Stop squelching the new voices”

4. “Confessions of a Contemporary Romance Author”

5. “Music that isn’t mine or why there’s a gay woman in Where the Heart Lies: About Lulu”

6. “How a chronic beginner finishes writing a novel”

7. “Slacking Off: Writing is Hard Work!”

8. “Vanishing Literature or Just Disappearing Ink?”

9. “Playing with emotions: What do you want to feel when you read?”

10. “Immersing Myself in the Culture of My Creations”