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.

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.

Number Two Nearly Done!

My second novel is nearly finished and currently is being read by one last reviewer (who may require massive rewrites, but I’m up for that). My first book took about 30 years to finish while this one has taken months. I have to say, that shocks me. I was expecting to take forever, but that’s not how it worked out. To my dismay, this book is demanding a sequel (how very rude!) Problem is, there are other books I want to write, but they will either have to wait, or I’ll have to work on books simultaneously. I suppose that beats not having any ideas at all, but I’m impatient to get on with writing. My husband pointed out that one of his favorite authors writes several books a year (and they’re all good, dammit). I think I may have to stop having a life and just lock myself in my house and never emerge except to do book promotion stuff. Wouldn’t that be lovely?

In truth, this is the third “second” book I’ve started because I was having a little trouble settling on what to write next. Everyone will tell you to follow a genre fiction book with one of the same or similar genre. I researched and worked on one fan fic sort of thing and one historical novel. I set both aside in hopes I could manage something paranormal and romantic with suspense similar to the first book. While I was casting about, I remembered once upon a time I had an idea for a story about a shop run by a couple who dealt with paranormal issues. “What if,” I asked myself, “they aren’t a couple yet?” It sort of grew a life of its own from there.

The book went quickly and has been easy to adjust as I get feedback (thank you to the wonderful people who help me with reality checks and typos). Now, the hardest part for me is coming up with the blurb–the synopsis that shows up on the back cover and on the Amazon description. How do I boil down my novel into something that will grab people and make them want to read it? Honestly, it’s harder than writing the story in the first place. How much to tell, what to leave out, how many subplots to touch on…the book is a mystery so there are subplots, all interwoven, and this book has a much bigger cast of characters. Once all that is done, it’s off to the publisher, more reviewers, a cover design to approve, galleys to read, and on and on. I hope it will be out before Christmas, but I’m not holding my breath.

My reviewers are saying it’s a much better book than Beloved Lives. That pleases me, and I agree. It means I’m learning how to write and write better. But one reviewer insists there is going to have to be a third book–a spin off with some of the side characters. I’m starting to get a bad feeling about this….

Image: Yes, the next book is a mystery. Me at Scotland Yard, 2002. By Jonathan Hutchins.

A Little Help From My Friends

Not long ago, you may recall, I was ready to shove my latest novel off a cliff and hie myself to a commune or convent or some other place that begins with a “c”. Instead, I put down the computer and stepped away from the writing. Then, I handed off the draft to my long-suffering friends to read, critique, or shove off a cliff. Bless them, they not only slogged their way through the novel, they provided feedback, suggestions for improving it, and praise!

I’m a social sort of creature. I like camping with a few hundred sweaty people once or twice a year. I like going to other people’s readings and publicly reading my own work. I like sharing the voice that got into my head and made me write what I wrote. I like helping out other writers with what I’ve learned so far, not that I’m any kind of expert, but, as they say, in the land of the blind, a one-eyed dude can be helpful. I like praise and positive feedback, because, who doesn’t? But more than all that, I like honest opinions that will make my work better.

I have the great luck to know some good writers and dedicated readers who can spot a fatal flaw in a novel. These folks are worth their weight in gold, booze, pet sitting, or nearly anything else they ask of me. Without these friends, I could consult editors (some for hire) who can yank me back from the edge of the cliff my novel and I are about to dive over.

Stephen King tells the story that his first novel, Carrie, was rescued from the trash can by his wife, Tabitha. She thought it wasn’t so very bad. I know how Mr. King felt when he chucked his novel. I’m glad he had the sense to listen to his wife and glad she saved that story.

My friends were able to spot the pretty decent story buried in the work I had gotten too close to, and they are helping me fix it. I think in the end, it’s going to be a good, possibly great, story, but that wouldn’t have happened without a little help from my friends. Thanks, guys.

Image: Me (in there somewhere) with a few of my friends at Lynn and Susan’s hand fasting. Photographer unknown.

ConQuest Report

I don’t know if kids still have to do those “What I Did on My Summer Vacation” essays, but here’s mine.

Over Memorial Day weekend, I went to the 49th ConQuest Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention, where I had the great honor and joy of serving on some panels.

I confess I was apprehensive about the sci-fi and fantasy charades, but since I was one of the judges, I didn’t have to publicly humiliate myself (I have no pride or restraint when it comes to things like charades). As it happens, I remembered a lot of the rules and was able to help the contestants with the clues like “sounds like”, how many words or syllables, the sign for plural, and so forth. The fun thing was, everyone was so familiar with the titles that guessing was a lot easier than I thought it would be. One of the participants was head and shoulders above everyone else, so we had a clear winner. If you haven’t played charades in a while, by all means, give it a go. If you invite me, I’ll come and make a fool of myself.

Other panels I served on were “Consent, Coercion, and Everything In-Between”, “The End of the World As We Know It”, and “Edgar Allan Poe”. There were lively discussions for all of them, but of course, the EAP panel was my favorite. In addition, I moderated the author speed dating. This was an opportunity for readers and authors to meet face to face for a few minutes and talk about the authors’ new books. I think everyone had a really good time with this, and I hope it will be a regular feature at future cons. Finally, I did a reading of Beloved Lives and a bit of Wasting Water.

Of the panels I attended, my favorite was “Solar Punk: A Brighter Future”, presented by Tyrell Gephardt. This was a look at a genre so new there are not yet any novels for it, only anthologies of short stories. I found it fascinating–the future with hope and eco-innovation. Tyrell did a great job researching the rise of new genres and presenting the trajectory of each. By all means, look for solar punk to add to your reading list.

I also enjoyed “For Your Listening Pleasure” about sound tracks for various movies (I have a sound track station on my Pandora account), the great vendor area, a few other panels I was able to catch bits of before having to get to something else, and the opening ceremony (I had a commitment that kept me from staying for the closing ceremony). But one of the things I hadn’t done so much in the past and made an effort to do this year was to go to as many readings as possible.

I was delighted by the quality of many of the readers’ work, with my special favorites being Sean Demory and Jack Campbell, Jr., although there were a lot of other great authors.

ConQuest is a small but dense convention with heavy emphasis on the written word. If you love to read sci-fi and fantasy, consider making a pilgrimage to it next year. Hopefully the Tattoo Convention will once again be happening at the same time just next door to provide interesting eye candy.

Image: Me in the party room at ConQuest (actually, that’s Venus at Pompeii. By Marilyn Evans)

Reading at The Writer’s Place

On Friday, August 17th, starting at 7 p.m., I will be joining a couple of other writer’s to do readings from our current and future works. I’m looking forward to this because The Writer’s Place has done so much to support writer’s in the K.C. area.

The Writer’s Place, 3607 Pennsylvania, Kansas City, MO 64111

www.writersplace.org