A Christmas Story

My Christmas story “The Man Christmas Hated” is my gift to all of you. Go to the Stories tab at the top of the page, and you should be able to access it.

I hope you enjoy the story, and that the holidays, however you celebrate them or not, bring you and all yours happiness and prosperity in the coming year.

Image: Yule Log, by Jonathan Hutchins.

Brain Full of Poetry

I suspect my muse is an insomniac. For decades, I’ve kept a pencil and pad at my bedside for those nights when my brain is so full of poetry that I couldn’t sleep until I write it down. Poems that come to me in the night can never be retrieved as completely as when they first appear. I don’t really write poetry any more, but story ideas still come in their place–characters, plot lines, scenes, turns of phrase–they come to haunt my hours between waking and sleep when the muse is restless and pacing, when my mind is most vulnerable to her.

My poetry was pretty bad, doggerel, probably, but that didn’t keep it from being relentless. Just the other night, after a long silence, a poem came to keep me awake that was an ode to camping. I love camping in spite of ticks, chiggers, mosquitoes, sunburn, poison ivy, thunderstorms, and raccoons that steal my food and try on my clothes (long story). I even broke my foot on a camp out–full disclosure, there were darkness, uneven ground, alcohol, and flip-flops involved, so possibly inevitable. In spite of all this, I love camping, but an ode to it keeping me awake seemed a bit perverse. Who writes odes to camping? Who would read it? Yet, there it was, tapping its foot and waiting impatiently to be acknowledged.

Some writers, I’m told, sit down and write. Others write in their minds for a long time before pen ever touches paper or fingers rest on keyboard. I’m of the latter school. I think about characters, plot lines, scenes, turns of phrase for a good long while before committing them to print. When I’m stuck, I take a walk and wait for my muse to stir  herself from her nap and get back to work inspiring me. I don’t mind so much that she is erratic and unreliable, that she parties at night and snores during most of my waking hours, as long as she’s there now and again. And sometimes, without my asking or thinking about it, she comes in the night to fill my brain with stories and poetry. Most of the time I dutifully write them down.

Image: My brothers, Paul and George, and me on a camping trip in 1957. Photo by John P. Evans (Yes, my family included John, Paul, and George. No, you may not call me Ringo.)

Sex Scenes

Warning: Content possibly unsuitable for minors and nervous persons

Sex in fiction is tricky.

The Marquis de Sade writing Justine and Juliette or Pauline Reage (the pseudonym of Anne Desclos) writing The Story of O, did not exhibit much restraint in how they wrote about sex, pushing the boundaries past what many (perhaps even most) would call acceptable. But these authors knew what they were writing and why: the sex didn’t contribute to the story, it was the story. Fifty Shades of Grey, a financial success but generally regarded as poorly written and uninformed, used the expectations of its audience to deliver what they wanted–not reality, but a fantasy. Successful romance writers have a keen sense of what is appropriate to their audience and the type of novel they are writing. There are subgroups within the romance genre that prepare the reader for how much or how little sex the novel contains and how graphic the descriptions will be. This is true of other genres as well. We might expect a graphic rape scene in a hard-boiled mystery, but never in a cozy.

In a series, we might expect a character to change their relationships over time, but we don’t expect them to go too far off the rails. Laurell K. Hamilton started her Anita Blake series as really good urban fantasy with a solid core of mystery. Unfortunately, a few novels into the series, the plots disappeared, and the books because vehicles for paranormal porn. This wouldn’t be a bad thing in and of itself, except I was expecting a good story, not endless sex scenes. Some of her fans liked where the series went. I wasn’t one of them.

Sex in a work of fiction (including it, leaving it out, dialing it back) has to be appropriate to the story and to the audience. When it goes wrong, sex scenes can be jarring and distracting, taking the focus off the story being told. In his book, Jaws, Peter Benchley included an affair between Chief Brody’s wife and the shark expert. It contributed nothing to the story and was wisely left out of the film version. The legendary editor, Maxwell Perkins, persuaded Ernest Hemingway to remove from For Whom the Bell Tolls the scene of the hero masturbating on the eve of battle. Hemingway felt it showed the character’s humanity. Perkins knew it would be a distraction.

I find writing sex scenes hard. It’s not that I’m a prude–quite the contrary. But I know if it is not done well, it can be the undoing of a novel. I know that the sex scenes can go too far, that badly written scenes are laughable, that expectations not met can disappoint the reader. I know that a sex scene not expected and anticipated can derail the readers opinion of a character.

Sex is important. It’s how nearly all of us got here. Most of the time, most of us like it. It usually makes us happy. But bad sex in fiction can serve a purpose as well–for example, what better way to show a failing marriage than through the demise of intimacy? In the end, what sex should do, as every other element of fiction should do, is serve the story.

Image: Priapus, ancient Roman wall mural in Pompey, Rome. Photo by Marilyn Evans.

Using All My Brain

Two movies I really like and have watched way too many times are Lucy and Limitless. They have a similar premise: humans use only about 10% of their brains, and if, by way of some miracle drug, we could access more of our brains, we could do amazing things. The film Phenomenon and the book Brain Wave, by Poul Anderson, had similar ideas about what we could accomplish if only we were smarter or had better access to full use of our brains.

Who hasn’t struggled to access information we knew that we had but couldn’t pull up, like the name of that song or that actor, until it finally comes to us in the middle of the night or, perhaps, days later? If only we could have a snappy comeback for that insult, but we don’t come up with it until hours later. If only we could learn those Spanish verb declensions or that Kreb’s cycle in an hour.

The problem is, the 10% thing is a myth. We actually use most of our brains most of the time. The second problem is, there are no such drugs–so far–and no short cuts, although there are techniques and methods for improving learning, retention, and recall. The thing is, doing most of the things in these stories I like so much, if they can be done at all, takes time. We can learn amazing things, we can recall what we have learned, we can create, we can do amazing things, but it takes time. That is the way to fully use a brain: to use it every day and for many days on end.

November is National Novel Writing Month. Writing a novel is an amazing accomplishment, and I think everyone should do it. In November, anyone who writes 1667 words a day for 30 days will end up with a 50,000 word novel by the end of the month. It only takes time and using an existing brain that is full of ideas and experiences and a language that we already know.

My first NaNoWriMo book is still unfinished because I realized it was too good a book to continue to work on until I became a better writer. I think I have the skills to work on it again and have been doing so since my most recent book went off to a publisher. But I’ll be putting it aside once again during November to work on a different book–one that has been haunting me for a couple of years. When I have the 50,000 words, I’ll put it away and go back to the first one until I think it’s worthy of submission. Maybe by next November, one book will be done and another will be ready to set aside while I do another NaNoWriMo.

I don’t think I could write at the rate some authors do, several books a year. I take too long to polish and ponder and worry and rework. But I can write the bones of a book in a month, if only I will. It doesn’t take more brain than I currently use. It only takes commitment. And time.

Image: A pile of cogs. By Jonathan Hutchins.

Inspiration

(This post contains spoilers).

Last weekend, my husband and I attended the Kansas City Symphony. Jonathan was especially taken by Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor and pianist George Li’s wonderful performance. I myself am always a sucker for Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7 in A major, especially since its stately second movement was used in the Nicholas Cage movie, Knowing, as the world ends in a solar flare. But the real surprise in this concert was a newer composition: Michael Kurth’s A Thousand Words.

Mr. Kurth was there in person to talk about the four movements of his work, each a musical picture worth many words that described the emotional experiences that inspired them. The first was a sunrise, the crescendo lasting as long as it takes the sun to rise above the horizon. The second was an amazing piece invoking with industrial zeal both the cliffs at Reynisfjara and the Sloss Furnaces of Alabama. The third movement paid tribute to his late mother, and the fourth was a carnival-like dance party.

Having tried my hand a couple of times at composing, I always wonder, where does all this really great music come from? The Muses, of course, the Gods, Heaven, Nature, but apparently it also comes from art. Later this year, the symphony will be performing Pictures at an Exhibition, Mussorgsky’s tribute to the art of Viktor Hartmann.

Last week I also was listening to a collection of Stephen King’s short stories as I drove from place to place on errands. The Bazaar of Bad Dreams includes an author’s introduction explaining his inspirations as well as comments afterward about the writers who might have been on his mind at the time he wrote the stories–his mentors, to some extent. None was more obvious than the story written in an approximation of the voice of Elmore Leonard.

For all that Nature is a powerful inspiration, I think the art of others may be a more powerful stimulant. Fan fiction arises from this but need not stop there. I have been told that the wonderful Lois McMaster Bujold began what was to become the Vorkosigan saga as fan fiction, but it became something whole, huge, and amazing all by itself. Just as there is nothing new in this world (a debatable point, but one often stated), there are no two things exactly alike. Infinite ways of telling stories, interpreting feelings, creating art rise and fall. How many interpretations of Shakespeare’s works have there been? And Shakespeare was inspired by older stories he borrowed freely but made his own.

I think we need never fear being derivative if we put our own soul into our works to create our own art. Art begets art no less than living creatures beget their own replacements. My works may never achieve the heights of those of King, Bujold, Mussorgsky, or Shakespeare, but wallowing in great art is its own reward, even without the bonus of inspiration.

Image: White Iris by Vincent Van Gogh. Print, from the collection of Marilyn Evans.

Does Writing Make You a Better Writer?

Does the simple act of writing make you a better writer? I’m of two minds about this. Here’s my reasoning.

I’m usually reading two books at the same time–one in the day time from which I may be taking notes or by which I am otherwise fully absorbed, and one book for pleasure during which I don’t mind falling asleep mid-paragraph.* Depending on the combination of books, this can make for some interesting juxtapositions.

I just finished re-reading Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass. When I first read this book, I hadn’t yet published my first novel. Now I’ve published one, written another, and am deeply immersed in writing more. The second time reading this, the information made far more sense. I could better understand what the author was getting at and how to apply it to my works in progress. By writing, I was learning not only how to write, but also how better to learn to write.

The other book I’m reading is Fear: Trump in the White House by Bob Woodward. I have no issues with Mr. Woodward’s exhaustively researched content, and who am I to argue with a man who has received nearly every major American journalism award and written or co-authored eighteen nonfiction books, all national bestsellers? But the thing is, Fear isn’t a very well written book. At times I couldn’t tell whether the statements made were hyperbole or facts–he doesn’t tell me. Sometimes he jumps around in time to give an example and loses me in the transition. In other places, I can’t tell who’s saying or doing what. It’s all a bit sloppy.

Maybe Woodward is one of those guys that people don’t dare edit. Anne Rice got unreadable when that happened to her. Or maybe Woodward is a better researcher than writer, and no one cares how he delivers the goods as long as he does. But it seems, if you write that much you ought to get better and better. In fairness, maybe he has. I haven’t read his earliest books.

So my opinion, if anyone cares: writing might make you a better writer over time if you take advice and listen to your advisers and editors. Writing alone won’t necessarily improve your craft unless you’re getting feedback as you go. Perhaps our president could learn from that. Do you suppose he reads my blog?

* My best ever bedtime book was Principles of Biochemistry by Albert I. Lehninger. I loved biochemistry, but for some reason, every time I opened that book at night, I would fall asleep.  There was something solid and comforting about the book and its content. When Dr. Lehninger came to Kansas City for a lecture, I was going to take my copy for him to sign, but it was an early edition with hand corrections, and I thought he might be insulted. Yes, I am a nerd.

Image: The Capital and I, in different times. By Jonathan Hutchins.

Romping in the Woods

I had the honor this past weekend to be a guest speaker at Gaia Goddess Gathering. I hadn’t been out to the Gaea Retreat Center in a few years so it was fun to see how much had changed or not changed since my last visit. My late friend, Carrie Moonstone Miller, had been instrumental in starting this women’s gathering, and I very much enjoyed feeling that her spirit is alive and well in the people and places there. She had been much on my mind lately–perhaps it’s autumn coming on, and old friends remembered is always a part of that season for me.

I had a good time romping in the woods and enjoyed being far enough away from the city lights to see the milky way and Mars looking seriously red. Except for the odd mosquito, the wildlife wasn’t too unkind, I managed to avoid sunburn, and I got enough exercise that my Fitbit was panting.

The topic of my talk concerned the Greek (probably pre-Greek) Goddess Hecate as a representation of the crone and especially with regard to wisdom, nurturing, and compassion. Of course, I had to reference Kristen Hawkes’ grandmother hypothesis, and Dixon Chibanda’s work using grandmother’s trained in evidence-based talk therapy to address Zimbabwe’s depression and suicide problem, as well as Paul Gilbert’s compassion-focused therapy. The work of these three people was, to me, a good representation of what grandmothers are all about.

Like all my talks, it had some personal anecdotes and odd scraps of this and that. But since I’m a writer these days and no so much a scientist as I once was, I had to end with a short story I had written a few years ago but never published. The story, “The Gibbet Crossroads”, gives a fair representation of my ideas about Hecate and what she does with herself at night. Since my audience liked the story and asked, I agreed to publish it here on the blog. Enjoy.

Image: Bluebell Woods, Hampshire, UK by Marilyn Evans.

Stumbling Toward Genius

I recently finished listening to the audio book The Geography of Genius by Eric Weiner. The author traveled around the world trying to figure out how certain places at certain times seemed to be homes for people of genius–not one but many in each place at each time. He found that ancient Athens, the Song Dynasty in China, Florence during the Italian Renaissance, present day Silicon Valley, Vienna in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and Edinburgh during the Scottish Enlightenment usually had some things in common: 1) a national disaster (the Black Death or defeat at the hands of an enemy or something  similarly devastating); 2) a measure of personal freedom; 3) availability of mentors and/or collaborators; 4) and some source of funding (investors or patrons). He also found the geniuses themselves tended to have things in common. They often had lost one or more parents at an early age, they were prolific, and they didn’t let set backs slow them down.

How do I measure up, I asked myself. I lost a parent at an early age. I am doing my best to be prolific, and I’ve just had a set back that I’m hoping to rise above: my publisher dumped me.

According to Weiner, Picasso created vast quantities of art only a portion of which can be regarded as masterpieces. Mozart had many unfinished works (usually when a patron stopped funding for the project), but he still made a lot of music, and lots of it is considered genius. The lesson? If you produce enough and keep learning as you go, some of it has got to hit. A lot of da Vinci’s inventions were downright silly, but we still regard him as a genius. So my goal is to write as much as I can, hopefully each piece better than the last.

As for the set back, the bad news is my publisher dumped me. He decided that after seven months, my book is not selling well enough on Amazon (the only place he has put it), and he doesn’t want to take a chance with another. The good news is, my publisher dumped me, and I’m free to send my next book to someone better.

I learned a lot from this publisher–about excellent developmental editors, a source for good cover art, and lots about self promotion. I also learned this is not the publisher I want to stay with. Of course, rejection always hurts, but like all aspiring geniuses, I’m going to use this setback to make me better.

Weiner does mention one other thing necessary for genius. It must be recognized and, by those recognizing it, acknowledged as genius. There may be lots of undiscovered geniuses out there, but without recognition, who will ever know or care? So, there you go, the next thing on my genius check off list. Wish me luck.

Image: The path at Danebury Hill Fort, Hampshire, England. By Jonathan Hutchins.

What is Literary Fiction?

I was recently in the small town of Milan, Missouri, at the auction of my late uncle’s effects. I fell into conversation with a man who, after learning that I write, wanted to talk literature. I suspect he just wanted to chat me up, but it’s a topic that is fairly easy to engage in with a stranger. Not long after this, my friend Chris (you remember Chris–I talk about her a lot) mentioned that she was feeling sad about the recent death of Sir VS Naipaul, a Nobel laureate in literature. Her sadness stemmed in part from never having previously heard of such an interesting person, and in part that after “reading the titles of his famous works and the names of the famous writers who disagreed with him, I suddenly believe I have never read a book.”

Chris and my husband and I then engaged in a conversation about what literature is and what literary works are. Of course, most of us have been subjected to “literature” in high school and also, perhaps, in college, some of it painful to read and worse to analyze and dissect. Not to say some of them weren’t great. It’s just that school often isn’t the best way to meet some of these authors.

But what is passing for real literary accomplishment these days? I began to gather lists of works by Nobel laureates–Barnes and Noble and Goodreads have good ones. Librarything.com gave me a list of the “Best Literary Fiction Around the Last 30 Years.” It was somewhat gratifying to learn I had read quite a few of the books on both lists, so perhaps I’m not a complete illiterate. I figure if I’ve seen the movie based on the novel, I get half credit, but it’s not the same as immersing myself in the carefully created words of a great piece of writing.

In theory, literary fiction is introspective or comments on the human condition or in some other way has merit. The thing is, what is great literature can change over time. I have a large collection of the “world’s great literature.” Some of it is amazing and life changing to read; some, not so much. I was appalled to discover The Red and the Black by Stendhal is a soap opera. Ulysses by Joyce can be read, but wouldn’t you rather have all your teeth extracted without Novocaine instead? Madame Bovary and The Great Gatsby just pissed me off. But who doesn’t love Huckleberry Finn and The Odyssey? I mean, “Roadtrip!” or rather, boat trip.

On the list of modern literary fiction, it’s great to see that genre fiction has begun to get a toehold. To find Margaret Atwood and Neil Gaiman included is, to me, a triumph. A romance writer recently interviewed on NPR stood up for her genre saying Jane Austen wrote romances, and no one doubts that her works are among the greatest, most beloved literature. But, to be honest, genre fiction was created within great literature. Edgar Allan Poe wrote mysteries, horror, and science fiction–you can’t get more genre than that.

My opinion? Stretch a bit now and again, trying out the kinds of books you’ve never read before–something by a Nobel laureate, perhaps–but for the most part, read what you love. And never stop reading.

Image: Books by dead white guys. By Marilyn Evans.

 

Set and Setting

Across the street from my house is a city park with a splash pool. The water spurts up from the concrete in rowdy jets that sometimes start and stop, catching you off guard if you’re not paying attention. The pool is a great hit with kids and their moms from Memorial Day through Labor Day.

One day as I walked by the pool, I saw a little boy playing with a broken plastic bucket. He would catch water in the bucket, chase his brother with it, then throw the water. He would put the bucket over one of the jets and watch it dance up with the water pressure. He was even chased in his turn by his brother with a bucket full of water. After watching for a little while, I started to want a broken plastic bucket of my own. Of course, I wouldn’t have as much fun as these kids were having because I’m probably not capable of their mind set in that setting–full summer, free of school and responsibilities, and with a toy of opportunity that was perfect for the moment. I could not experience their set and setting, so that broken bucket would be wasted on me.

The late Dr. Timothy Leary coined the term set and setting to describe the circumstances one might experience during an LSD drug experience. The mind set and environment could lead someone tripping to distress and paranoia or life-transforming revelations. The Eleusinian Mysteries and other rites throughout history have made use of a carefully prepared set and setting to guide initiates to unforgettable and transformative experiences.

As an author, I strive in my writing to describe settings that will be vivid for my readers, placing them in environments that are real enough to immerse them, to put them in a world of my creation that I hope they can experience as I have imagined or experienced it. In addition, I try to lead them to a mind set that will provide an experience of suspense, entertainment, perhaps even revelation. By using the ancient tools of manipulating set and setting, I try to guide my readers to the end experience I am aiming for. I may never be able to bring them the joy provided by a well-timed, broken plastic bucket, but it’s a lofty goal to keep in sight.