Books and Baby Food

I’m sitting here with my usual companion,

who is refusing to look at the camera after being kicked off my lap/keyboard about half a dozen times. She’s probably reconsidering whether I’m still her favorite human, but I keep the food dish full, so I feel secure in my position.

Anyhoo…, I’m trying to think of something to write about besides baby food (sweet potato=major fail; zucchini=gobble, gobble, gobble. Go figure).

Hmmm, something will come to me…

Toys? No…

Spit-up? No…isn’t that supposed to dial back with the introduction of solid food? Cause so far—

Wait! Stop. Not writing about spit-up…

Diapers? Definitely not (worried you there for a second, didn’t I?).

Books? Yes, books. Totally acceptable topic. I should write about something I’ve read recently…hmmm…how about something I’ve purchased recently:

Periodically, I wholeheartedly volunteer to go get groceries in the evening while Hubby is on baby duty. And, well, Chapters just happens to be right next to the grocery store (crazy coincidence).  Since Kiddo’s arrival five short months ago,  I have added the following to my bookshelf—already packed with unread volumes:

Trouble in Mind: A collection of short stories by Jeffery Deaver. I’ve read one story so far; it didn’t blow me away. Maybe more on that in a later post. If I remember, which is unlikely. Never mind.

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams: Also a short-story collection, this one by Stephen King. I’m on page 22, still near the beginning of the first story (the first seven pages were the author intro).

I picked short-story collections thinking I might have a snowball’s chance in hell of finishing a complete story in a reasonable amount of time, maybe even one sitting. Turns out both Jeff and Steve consider 15000+ words to be ‘short’. I personally think this is getting into novella territory (or novellette?). According to Writer’s Digest anything under 30k can be called a short story (really?). Maybe it’s just that the length of my ‘one sitting’ has changed dramatically in recent months, but I think that’s ridiculous.

In the Unlikely Event: One of Judy Blume’s for-adults novels. I haven’t read any of her adult stuff, but I’ve been told it’s great by number of people. Including the Chapters employee who was at the checkout when I bought this one. You know how they say, ‘Whatever you do, do it well’? I swear every time I’ve been checked out by this guy he has something relevant to say about the book or the author. I’m starting to wonder if there’s a book in Chapters he hasn’t read. 

I chose this one in particular (and broke my don’t-by-hardcover-unless-it’s-on-sale rule, but it’s ok I had a gift card) partly because the description mentions air disasters of the 50s—three crashes hitting one town. I wondered if one of them was a Comet, early jets of the same time frame that exploded in midair because of square windows. I haven’t cracked this book yet, but I googled the event that apparently inspired it. Turns out the referenced plane crashes predate the Comet crashes by a couple of years. Boy, the 50s were a crappy decade for air travel.

The Dressmaker: Historical fiction by Kate Alcott, a new author for me. I didn’t actually buy this one. My mom recommend and lent it. I’ve made it to page 10, so I’m not really into the story yet but I think it has potential. (Did you notice the upside-down title in my picture? I did, but I’m not taking another one. Baby’s napping, seconds count)

Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation: By Bill Nye, chosen because I like Bill Nye. I usually prefer my science-ish books a little more in depth, but I don’t have a lot of spare brain power these days. The Science Guy’s layman-level writing is just about right for my current non-fiction needs. I’ve read a whopping eighty-eight pages of this one so far.

The Children of Men: This one is by P.D. James and I bought it because for someone who writes sci fi, it’s been a while since I’ve read any. Also I haven’t read any of her books, but I’ve heard good things and was looking for something new. I haven’t started this one yet either, but according to the back cover society’s collapse is about six years away.

So there you have it, my unfulfilled reading expectations. Oh, in the background there is also The Lamb Book from IKEA’s extra-soft, baby-gums-friendly collection. I’ve ‘read’ that one quite a few times and highly recommend it to the 0-12 month crowd.

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45 minutes

The baby is napping. I have approximately forty-five minutes of uninterrupted time ahead (probably). If I am ever going to complete a piece of writing ever again, I must learn to take advantage of these little windows.

But…

…someone else wants my attention…

Poor kitties are often neglected these days. How can I resist???

In other news, I got a Chapters gift card for Christmas. Can’t wait to buy more books for my to-be-read-when-my-child-is-seven pile. OK, it’s not that bad. Sometimes I manage to read a whole two pages of a book before I pass out at night.

The More Things Change…More on Ray Bradbury

Some time ago, I wrote a post about Ray Bradbury’s story The Highway. I have since finished reading the collection of short stories it came in, The Illustrated Man (1999), and have a little more to say.

There are some timeless lessons to be learned from Ray Bradbury for wanna-be fiction writers. The way he approaches writing (according to the collection’s intro) rings very true and is excellent advice: writing comes from asking, ‘what if…?’ Then seeing what happens.

There is no doubt Ray Bradbury was a creative mind–in many ways ahead of his time I’m sure–and a talented writer. However, despite his vivid imaginings of the future, he must have been a strong believer in the adage: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

This collection was published in the late 90s, but most of the stories were written and originally published in the late-40s/early-50s time frame. There were some basic rules of life, particularly around marriage, that Ray apparently didn’t expect would change even with the advent of rockets and sentient robots.

For example, take the story Marionettes, Inc. This tale opens with two men discussing the difficulties of their marriages. The protagonist basically hates his wife and always has. The other man claims to love his wife, but he finds her tendency to over express her affection insufferable. Rather than consider how to best approach their wives and resolve these problems, the discussion leads to ethical verses unethical ways to deceive their wives. Thus making the men’s lives easier. Because men are people, and women are…inconvenient appendages?

How might one sneak out to have drinks with a buddy? They wonder. The options on the table include:

Sleeping powder = unethical.

Clone-like marionette to temporarily replace husband = ethical. What she doesn’t know can’t hurt her after all.

Seriously?

The idea that perhaps the man who never loved his wife should never have married her in the first place is briefly discussed and dismissed with reference to some family embarrassment that was prevented by the union (appearances are more important than happiness, of course).

The idea of actually talking with one’s spouse about what’s making the marriage unhappy? Not even worth a mention.

Leaving a relationship that has proven miserable for a decade? Parish the thought.

Thinking your wife might be able to tell the difference between you and a robot? Not of great concern.

I can’t decide if the wives have brain damage, or the husbands do.

All that said, Marionettes, Inc. has some good plot twists as well as the kind of ending that draws people to read Ray Bradbury and drives them nuts at the same time (in Ray’s defense, it turns out at least one of the wives may not be so superficial after all). It is a reasonable story and was probably even better to its original audience, in a decade before women were considered fully-actualized human beings. But in a more modern plot, I think there would have to be some kind of black mail, abuse, or mental illness involved to justify such lengths being taken to deceive one’s spouse.

I don’t think Ray Bradbury was oblivious the impact ‘the times’ had on his writing. In the intro (written in 1997) to the collection, he references the story The Other Foot, in which Colored people (he acknowledges, “that’s what they were called when I wrote The Other Foot in 1949”.) get to Mars before the Whites—what if?

Turns out, he couldn’t sell the story to the pre-civil-rights-movement American market—not because it isn’t a good, well-written story. He wound up giving it to a Paris-based magazine instead.

I’m sure this mark of time is an inevitable part of most writing, and I suspect it is most obvious in science fiction where authors are constantly trying to guess the complete unknown through the lens of our own lives, with no reliable frame of reference. Creative and timeless as any writer tries to be, it seems even the best sci fi will end up with elements that become comical. Look at Back to the Future. According to its timeline, 2015 is the year of the flying car.

With the 50s-style depiction of the future, I found it hard to become fully absorbed in some of the stories in The Illustrated Man. But I consider Marionettes, Inc proof such miscalculations about the future don’t have to ruin a story. And Back to the Future is still one of the best trilogies ever (in my humble opinion). Even if I’m not watching it while eating a pizza from my food rehydrator, with kids buzzing by my window on hover boards.

Maybe the greatest compliment for a sci-fi author is that their stories persists long enough to be made fun of in light of reality. If anyone is reading my writing far enough into the future to notice my generational fingerprint, awesome.

Stories That Stick: The 11:59

You know the stories you read as a kid that stick in your brain forever? You might go years without thinking about them, then some little trigger pops up and suddenly you not only remember the story, but where you were sitting when you read it, or what shirt you were wearing. Since I began writing, these stories slip to the surface of my consciousness more and more easily. One of the strongest recurring story memories for me is The 11:59.

The 11:59 is from a short story collection called The Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural by Patricia C. McKissack (1992). It’s the story of a retired train porter, Lester, who’s telling the young porters the tale of the Death Train that will take them all one day.

“Any porter who hears the whistle of the 11:59 has got exactly twenty-four hours to clear up earthly matters.  He better be ready when the train comes the next night…”

I don’t remember how I got my hands on the book, whether it was from the bookshelf at home or the school library, but I distinctly remember sitting on my bed reading it. I’m not sure what shirt I was wearing, but there was probably a Blue Jays ball cap on my head or somewhere nearby. I also remember that for quite some time afterward (years maybe) I couldn’t help but check my watch if I heard a train whistle after dark, just to make sure it wasn’t 11:59—on at least one occasion, it was. I told myself my watch must be off by a few minutes to stave off a panic attack (and obviously lived to tell about it).

I’m not sure if it was this story that left me with the indelible impression that trains are magic, or if this belief was already there to enhance the chill it gave me (my reading of The Polar Express might have come first), but I still think of The 11:59 when I hear a train after dark. Though, I no longer check my watch. I swear.

Recently, I was compelled to track down The 11:59 (gotta love Google). It was tugging at my memory to the point that I just had to confirm the story was how I remembered it, and not some jumble of other stories mixed together by my all-too-human memory over two decades. Sure enough, the plot was almost exactly how I remembered it.

Reading it again as an adult, I was more aware of the simplicity of the storyline (intended for a young audience) and a typo jumped out at me that I’m sure I would neither have noticed nor cared about when I was ten or eleven. Even reading it in elementary school, I remember finding the story predictable. When Lester hears the 11:59’s whistle, he’s taken over by panic and a mission to accident-proof himself for the next twenty-four hours in hopes he will survive. All the while ignoring the pain in his chest and tingling in his left arm—duh.

But knowing where the roller coaster was going didn’t lessen the thrill of the drops and turns. And years later, the final scenes haven’t lost their magic.

Thoughts on: The Problem of Susan – Neil Gaiman

Where many may have become Neil Gaiman fans through Sandman or Coraline, I first took note of his story telling as a result of an episode he wrote for Doctor Who. Later, I saw his now-famous commencement speech, Make Good Art. This was around the time I was really getting interested in writing, and I thought I could learn a lot from the way this guy approaches work, writing—where they meet—and life.

Recently, I picked up an anthology of short stories, People of the Book: A Decade of Jewish Science Fiction. Aside from my amusement at seeing religion and science fiction side by side, I noticed Neil Gaiman listed as one of the authors. I skipped ahead and read his story, The Problem of Susan, first. I loved it. To get to why I loved it, I have to back up a bit. Continue reading

Review of a Classic: The Highway – Ray Bradbury

Some time ago, I received feedback on a story I had posted on a writing forum. The story I posted, Conditioning Phase, is among the first I ever wrote, and though I’ve since gone back to the story and can see the mechanics of it leave a lot to be desired, one of the reviewers on the forum seemed to really like it and compared it to Ray Bradbury’s work.

Of course, I had heard of Ray Bradbury–a famous, 50s era, sci-fi author–and was thrilled to be compared to him. It was a good confidence boost early on in my writing attempts. But here’s a confession: With the exception of A Sound of Thunder (great story), I’d never read Ray Bradbury.

Farenheit 451 might have been on the reading list of my one university English class. I can’t recall for sure, but I remember the entire reading list was dystopian themed: A Clockwork Orange, Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale, etc. It’s very possible Farenheit 451 was there too. The thing is, I didn’t read any of those books. I was a first-year engineering student in a class of first-year engineering students, 90% of whom were only in the class because it was mandatory (I’m assuming about 10% of the class had some genuine interest in English Literature. I could be wrong).

Luckily, the professor spent so much time telling us what we were supposed to think about these narratives, rather than encouraging anything in the way of original thought (not sure if he was like this with all students or just had a low opinion of his unmotivated engineering students) that all I had to do come exam time was regurgitate what I could remember from the hours of class I was actually awake for. That was enough to come out of it with a C (possibly one of my better marks that semester) without cracking a single book from the assigned pile. Well, that’s not quite true. I read the first page or two of A Clockwork Orange before giving up. Tricky linguistics is not my strong suit.

I digress.

Recently I was in the bookstore, browsing the sci-fi section. I came across Bradbury’s short story collection The Illustrated Man. I decided it was time to fill this gap in my literary repertoire.

Most of the stories in The Illustrated Man highlight societal trends and norms of the time most of them were published ( around 1951), often exploring the darker side of these trends. The stories don’t all end in doom and gloom, but there isn’t a guaranteed happy ending either. I like that about them.

Normally, when I’m reading for fun, I try not to analyse what I’m reading. It’s a good way to ruin a good story and start overly obsessing about how my own writing compares. However, since I went into Bradbury’s collection knowing someone had already compared my story style with his, it was hard to avoid this time.

I found myself comparing his writing to the various writing to-do’s and not-to-do’s I’ve come across since I started learning the craft. I made some observations that I think are worth sharing with the aspiring-writer community, particularly while reading The Highway.

Quick summary: The Highway is told from the perspective of a Mexican man who lives on a highway leading to the US border. First he observes that there is an unusual lull in the traffic, and suspects something is up. This is followed by a deluge of cars going by, all in the same direction, with panicked-looking passengers. One of the vehicles stops in need of water for an overheating radiator. The protagonist, Hernando, learns from the passengers that the atom war, and the end of the world, has finally come. When the truck leaves, Hernando goes back to working his field as if nothing of significance has happened. I guess this shows how differently the threat of nuclear war was perceived by cultures not directly involved in it, or how the concept of ‘the world’ differed outside the USA?—In the last line Hernando says to himself: “What do they mean, ‘the world’?”

Back to the to-do’s and not-to-do’s. From various sources, I have read writing tips warning against the following:

1) Trying to establish a character’s foreign origins by throwing a few words of their native tongue into dialogue of otherwise perfect English, particularly using the simplest words, which would be the first English words any foreigner would learn. ‘Sí’ and ‘Señor’ are given as specific examples to be avoided.

In The Highway, Hernando’s English has a few grammatical flaws, but nothing that screams ‘Spanish accent’. His first language is identified by his use of Spanish words. And the only Spanish words used in the entire story are, you guessed it, ‘Si’ and ‘Señor’.

2) In dialogue, using speech tags other than ‘said’. More often than not, avoid other speech tags—screeched, divulged, questioned, pontificated, etc—as the familiarity of ‘said’ will allow most readers to gloss over it and focus on the dialogue itself. Also, don’t weigh down speech tags with redundant adverbs, adverbial phrases, or unnecessary adjectives. In fact, avoid these in general, in dialogue or otherwise.

Quote from The Highway: “Oh, please hurry!” one of the girls cried. She sounded very high and afraid.” An exclamation mark, a descriptive speech tag, and follow-on clarification of her tone of voice. I’d say it’s more than clear that this girl is freaked out.

3) Scenes/stories where nothing actually happens. Example: An entire story going on in the head of a protagonist sitting on the bus. What characters are thinking and observing certainly matters, but for the most part the reader is interested in what is happening to the protagonist and what they are actually doing about it.

In The Highway, the entire story consists of the protagonist becoming aware of a situation–the ‘atom war’ has started. Then the story is over. Short stories do have some leeway compared to novels when it comes to what is considered a complete story arc, but the entire emotional impact of The Highway seems to depend on the statement: “It’s come, the atom war, the end of the world!” having a significant effect on the reader without any description of what this end-of-days actually looks like.

I suspect in 1951, when the story was first published, the hint alone of atomic war was enough to give readers chills. However, even though have as good an idea as the next person what the implications of dropping a nuclear bomb are, from the perspective of someone who didn’t grow up in 50s USA, convinced a bomb was going to fall on me at any moment (I know, lots of countries have nuclear weapons and it’s possible they will use them, but I don’t spend much of my day worrying about it), this particular story didn’t resonate with me all that much.

None of these observations are intended to paint Ray Bradbury as a bad writer. He was a great writer. It says something that A Sound of Thunder has stuck in my head (in a good way) since I read it in high school. And there’s a reason people are still reading his stuff.

My point is, he was making all the same ‘mistakes’ the rest of us do. Given his stories are still in print decades after they were written, I find that encouraging. There’s hope for aspiring writers yet. A good story can overcome a few imperfections, and perfect writing doesn’t make for a good story.

Mabel’s Mission Published by Mad Scientist Journal

…imagine a world where capricious scientists, such as yourselves, have free reign. I just so happen to come from such a world. Honestly…

…Hamish was the epitome of science gone wrong. About four and half feet tall, with wildly disproportionate, beefy limbs, he had tiny insectile eyes that were especially out of place in his large, somewhat bulbous head. His scattered patches of coarse hair were interspersed between a disturbing assortment of tubes coming out of his scalp…

Read about the Mabel’s adventures in a world where human experimentation is as common as getting a haircut…but–like haircuts– sometimes it goes horribly wrong. You can read Mabel’s Mission now  (free, no log-in or other effort required) at Mad Scientist Journal.  

And thanks to Shannon Legler for the awesome art.