Simulating the Future

Fiction is a type of simulator, much like a flight simulator, where we can experience life at one remove. Just like a flight simulator, the situations we encounter in fiction (particularly fiction that poses dilemmas) seem real, and they have real effects on our minds. Although this is recent research, I have known it since I first learned to read. I never read fiction just for entertainment. It was more real to me than that — like practice for life. I didn’t see myself as the main character, rather I read myself into the story, trying to figure out how I would act in a similar situation. Unlike many of the youth of my generation, I never had to use recreational drugs to understand what could happen. I knew secondhand through books the possible consequences. I also knew the consequences of teen-age pregnancy, drunk driving, and whatever other trouble kids my age could get into, and it made me cautious. Maybe too cautious. Still, I never got into a mess I couldn’t get myself out of.

As I grew older, potential problems became more serious, and again, books simulated various scenarios I was able to sidestep. I might have continued to be too cautious, but I never saddled myself with avoidable problems such as overwhelming debt. (I was going to change this cliché, but I got an image of debt as a saddle with a banker as the person sitting on the saddle riding me, and I thought it was an apt image, so the cliché stays.)

Popular books, easy books, happily-ever-after books, books without major moral dilemmas never did much for me. In fact, if I read too many of these “junk food” books, I’d get depressed. Oddly, all books now depress me the way these books once did, perhaps because the situations in books no longer act as a simulator. I know I will never be an unwed mother, a single mother, or a woman struggling to handle a family and a career. I know I will never solve a murder, either as an amateur or a professional. I know how it feels to love. I know how it feels to lose the one man who made life worth living, know how it feels to take care of an aged parent, know how it feels to be the subject of a brother’s rage.

But I still have a “flight simulator” — my imagination. Although imagination isn’t as good a simulator as fiction since we tend not to be able to project our true feelings into the future, a life time of reading and living has trained me at least in a small part to imagine how I would deal with certain situations.

Pacific Crest TrailI’ve been writing lately about my idea of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. I have been hiking small sections of the trail (some of my typos crack me up — I just wrote “trial” instead of trail, and that is apropos at times of hiking the PCT — a real trial). These Saturday hikes give me a small taste of the dream. But more than that, talking/writing/thinking about walking up to Seattle expands my mind the way reading a good book used to.

If it sounds as if I am backtracking (instead of backpacking), the truth is that as much as the idea intrigues me, I really don’t think I could do it. It’s way too dangerous for someone who isn’t fit and has no camping experience. Besides, I cannot see me wielding an ice axe to keep from falling off a narrow icy trail, cannot see me coming face to face with a grizzly who wants to wrestle me for my scant food supply, cannot see me “out packing” bags of used toilet paper, carrying the stinky package for hundreds of miles until I came across a place where I could dispose of it. Nor am I interested in doing something that takes such massive planning — the preparation takes longer that the 2650-mile hike itself. I want to be spontaneous, just take off walking and keep on walking, and that is so not possible on the PCT. It’s also expensive — hikers typically spend $4000 to $8000 for the 5-6 month jaunt.

Still, I want an epic adventure someday, and I want it for real, not second hand from books — if not the PCT, then perhaps something that stems from this particular simulation. I’ll keep imagining, keep throwing myself into the future, and see what happens.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Taking “R” Things With Gratitude

When it comes to life the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude. ~~ G. K. Chesterton

For the rest of November, I’m going to take with gratitude some of those things I often take for granted — an entire alphabet’s worth! Since today is the eighteenth day of this surge of gratitude, I am giving thanks for “R” things.

I am especially grateful for:

Rest, relaxation, recreation, relief, restoration, refreshment, renewal. There are a host of “r” words that speak of rejuvenation after hard work or stressful times. I am truly grateful and blessed that I have been able to find respite — if only for a few hours at a time — from my cares. I’m also grateful for the resiliency that enabled me to continue going SANYO DIGITAL CAMERAafter the death of my life mate/soul mate and which is enabling me to find some sort of renewal on new paths.

Reminiscences. More and more now, I’m remembering the good times with my life mate/soul mate, not just the end times where he was slowly wasting away. I’m grateful there were good memories, though I am careful not to wallow in the past. He is gone, and though I cannot be grateful for that, I am very grateful he is no longer suffering.

Red. What would the world be like without red? Much of our world is steeped in blues and green and tan, and red seems like an exclamation point that reminds us of wonder and joy and passion and warmth. Even though red is not abundant in nature, we still take it for granted, but today, for once, I will take with gratitude all the red in my life.

Reading, of course. I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t read, so it’s easy to take the ability for granted, and yet I am very grateful for being able to read. It was my life for decades — until recently, all I ever really wanted was to read.

So, what “R” things are you taking for gratitude today?

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See also:
Taking “A” Things With Gratitude, Taking “B” Things With Gratitude, Taking “C” Things With Gratitude,Taking “D” Things With Gratitude, Taking “E” Things With Gratitude, Taking “F” Things With Gratitude, Taking “G” Things With Gratitude, Taking “H” Things With Gratitude, Taking “I” Things With Gratitude, Taking “J” Things With Gratitude,Taking “K” Things With Gratitude, Taking “L” Things With Gratitude, Taking “M” Things With Gratitude, Taking “N” Things With Gratitude, Taking “O” Things With Gratitude, Taking “Q” Things With Gratitude

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Creativity Has No Price

A couple of days ago, I posted a bloggery What is the Price of Creativity, where I lamented the devaluation of books. What everyone believes they can do, no one values, and so readers today expect to get ebooks for a nominal sum, or even free.  Mickey Hoffman, author of School of Lies and Deadly Traffic, wrote such an insightful rebuttal to that article that I thought it deserved to be featured here (though truthfully, everyone made important  points). Mickey wrote:

Rembrandt died poor. He’s now regarded as one of the creative geniuses of the art world. This stuff has been going on forever. In ancient times the people who carved the famous statues in Greece didn’t even put their names on their work. Creativity has never been as useful to humans or held as high a value as the ability to make money, to manipulate others, to convince the masses that one is a god, etc.

The ability to write used to be admired only because for centuries most people could not even read or write their own names. And only the Bible was deemed worthy of reading. When reading no longer was such a mysterious process done only by a monk or priest and people realized it wasn’t so difficult to learn to do it for themselves, then they began to read, but still mostly religious tomes. If you look at many countries today, the kids are taught to read only for the purpose of reading the Koran. So it still happens.

In the West, as the ability to read became more common, writing became more common. Letter writing was the rage and those who could write creatively were held in high esteem. But were they actually paid well for it? Not often. Rich people had books but didn’t read them, they used them like trophies to show they were cultured. Writers still struggled to make a living and always have. Only a few have been able to support themselves that way. There have always been trashy publications and well written ones. Just more of both now.

You could argue against public libraries too, and make an argument that the ability to read for free would devalue writing. I don’t think the availablity has much to do with it. What’s changed are two things. One is the cultural idea that’s infected education: Everyone’s a winner. No one can be told they’re not good at something for fear of damaging their self-esteem. Kids aren’t reading well-written books in elementary or high school anymore so they have no means of comparison. They don’t have to learn how to write well either unless it’s on a test. College professors are getting essays with abbreviated text messaging words in them. My brother, a professor, used to read me some of the stuff his students wrote. These things were so unintelligible I didn’t know whether to cry or laugh. Somehow they made it into college anyway.

Second, television and films. Need I say more? I think we’ve all noticed that best sellers read like they’ve been written to be made into an action/thriller movie. And if they are, then they’re actually composed with different elements in mind than a writer puts into a story made for reading only.

So how is the public to know they’re reading garbage? Just throw in a vampire or a ghost or a serial killer or a few sex scenes and that’s enough to find an audience. And the agents and publishers know this. Don’t blame Amazon or anyone else, blame US.

Are You Playing The Kindle Game?

People keep saying that Kindle, even more than other reading devices, has revitalized the book industry, making books affordable and reading more accessible. They say the market is expanding, that people who never read are now interested in books. But is this true? Are they interested in reading, or are they interested in playing the Kindle game, downloading books as fast as possible to fill their new toy?

One reason people always gave for not reading is that they don’t have time. Do people suddenly have huge extra blocks of time to read, to get into a book, to explore new ways of thinking and experience new ways of being? I think not. It seems that reading is now part of the multi-tasking generation, where you read while doing something else. Is this reading? People say that reading is not a solitary activity any more, that new enhanced reading apps make it social. If so, is this really reading?

The other half of the Kindle game is the author game, where selling as many books as possible, is all that matters. Whether people actually read the book is immaterial. Of course, the major publishers started this game a long time ago, this game of sales records, and now it’s been taken to the people where anyone can play. But that doesn’t mean the books being sold then or now are worth reading.

When I mentioned in a comment to a fellow blogger that Amazon was a major publisher, she corrected me and said it was a sales platform, like using WordPress. It’s a perfect analogy, and it explains an unusual phenomenon — my rapidly increasing blog rating. It always used to hang around 3,500,000 on Alexa.com, but suddenly, for no reason I could see (my readership is growing, but not enough to explain a leap in rankings), my blog began increasing in rank, and now it’s at 929,990 (out of 346 million sites). Are blogs disappearing (or falling off the scale) because people are now uploading things for Kindle that they once posted on their blogs? If so, then books are being devalued to the level of a bloggerie.

Makes me wonder if I’ll ever take up writing again.

But for now, if you are playing the Kindle game, all my books are available both in print and in ebook format. You can get them online at Second Wind Publishing, Amazon, B&N and Smashwords. Smashwords is great! The books are available in all ebook formats, including palm reading devices, and you can download the first 20-30% free.

This is the third post where I’ve been mulling over the current state of the book business. The other two are: Is the Book Business Dying? and First the Bread Wars, Now the Book Wars.

The Scent of Channel Number 5

Lately in online discussion groups I’ve been coming across the attitude that only the story counts, that a few errors more or less in a book make no difference. Perhaps. I’ve been told that there are three errors in Daughter Am I, three in More Deaths Than One, and one in A Spark of Heavenly Fire. Of those seven errors, two were the replacement of the letter el with the number one and one was the replacement of the number one with the letter el, so I don’t really count those, though apparently others do. Someday, perhaps, I will get them corrected. But that’s not the point of this little discussion. The point is that although errors are hard to eradicate completely, some errors do count.

I was reading a thriller the other day, one of those convoluted stories with a dozen endings as if the author couldn’t figure out which ending he wanted to use. There were three crimes, all dealing with the same group of people yet none of the crimes were related. One of the crimes was a kidnapping, and though I know who did the kidnapping, the story was so complicated I still don’t know who instigated it. Despite all the flaws of the book, the one thing that took me out of the story was a typo. The author tried to set the scene using smells — the aroma of an expensive cigar, the smell of leather chairs, the scent of Channel Number 5 lingering in the air.

Channel No. 5? Makes me wonder that smells like. The English Channel? Salty, perhaps a bit fishy, perhaps a tinge of pollution? Maybe it’s a clean scent — after all, what do I know about the English Channel. Or perhaps it’s the smell of a television channel, though I’m not sure what that would smell like. Or perhaps it’s the smell of a gutter or a conduit. Not quite the feeling he wanted to portray! And if I hadn’t been so taken with the idea of Channel Number 5, I might have learned who the kidnapper was.

A Thrill of Books

51miDOzhkHL._SX333_BO1,204,203,200_A murder of crows. A quiver of cobras. A charm of finches. A mischief of mice. A tower of giraffes. A scurry of squirrels. To this list of wonderfully evocative group names, I’m adding “a thrill of books.”

When I was young, I used to love coming home from the bookstore or library with an armful of books. I’d study the covers, read the blurbs and acknowledgments, open the book and sample a few words. It was a special thrill, this stack of new worlds that would soon be a part of me. Where would I go? Who would I meet? What challenges would I have to overcome?

The years did their damage, as they always do. Or maybe the culprit wasn’t the passing years, perhaps it was too many trivial stories, too much homogenization of genre, too much corporate policy infringing on the art. For whatever reason, I lost the thrill of having new books to read, and I thought it was gone forever.

I mentioned in my previous blog that I offered to review a few books, and today I received two of them in the mail: Steel Waters and Toxic Shock Syndrome by Ken Coffman. I looked at the covers (okay, I did more than look, I ran my hand over them, savoring the feel of the brand new books). I read the back covers, the acknowledgements, the author’s signature — “To my friend and fellow writer, Pat Bertram. I wish you all the best with your work.”

Already I could feel the glimmer of that old familiar feeling. Then I opened Steel Waters to the middle and saw, “I looked and smelled like a Bolivian sewer rat.” From comments others had made, I knew this was no homogenized piece of corporate bilge, but right then I felt it — the thrill.

So thank you, Ken, for giving me — one more time — a thrill of books.

See also: Pat Bertram Introduces Glen Wilson, Hero of Five Ken Coffman Novels
On Writing: Style and Cadence by Ken Coffman
A Cheapskate Guide to Creating a Publishing Company by Ken Coffman

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Finding the Dunce in Redundancy

I’m reading a book set in Australia in the early 1800s. Or rather, I was reading it. The author seemed competent, the story flowed, and the characters were engaging. Then all of a sudden I was jerked out of the fictive dream. “She had the intestinal fortitude necessary to help build this new country.” What? Intestinal fortitude in the 1800s? I think not.

First, intestinal fortitude is a ridiculous euphemism for guts. Fortitude is courage. Period. It needs no modifier. And it has nothing to do with intestines. Sure, some people do get cramps or diarrhea when facing fear, but then it’s up to the author to show it rather than relying on the wretched phrase “intestinal fortitude.”

Second, guts meaning fortitude did not make an appearance until the 1930s. Which means that the euphemism intestinal fortitude came later.

There are certain terms I would like to rub out of the English language. Intestinal fortitude is one. Coed is another. What a patronizing term! Coed is short for coeducational and refers to the women who were allowed into previously all male colleges and universities. Perhaps it had meaning back in the nineteen-thirties, but its use today is demeaning. It says men are educated, and women are co-educated. (Like a pilot and co-pilot.) So please, do not use coed. Student is sufficient, or woman student if you have to differentiate.

Another term that grates is excess verbiage. Verbiage means excess words, so excess verbiage is excess excess words. Doesn’t even make sense. Nor does “reiterate again”. Reiterate means to say again and again. Reiterate again means to say again and again, again and again.

The moral of the story? Don’t take any of your words for granted. They are a gift. And a responsibility.

What Do You Want to Say to Your Readers?

The publishing industry seems determined to keep writers on a tight leash of fast and easy fiction, but I don’t see any reason why a good writer can’t find a way of saying something important in readable stories.

In all these years I’ve been writing, I never really considered what I wanted to say to the reader, or what role I wanted to play in their lives. I knew I wanted to be a good storyteller, but that’s all. Odd to find myself thinking about this now after having written four (unpublished) novels instead of at the beginning.

One theme that has run through my books is, “Beware. Nothing is as it seems. You are being lied to and have always been lied to,” but other than that, I’m not sure I ever considered what I wanted to say to potential readers when I was writing a novel. I wrote for me and I concentrated on telling a good story with the hope that someday someone would like to read the book and be entertained.

I no longer know where I am going with my writing.

The first book I wrote was a fictional autobiography (sort of). I had a lot of matters I needed to work through and thought it would be a good way to do it. It worked, but the book was so bad I don’t consider it one of my finished novels.

The first real novel I wrote because I wanted (needed) to make some money. Silly me! I also wanted to talk about the Vietnam war and the misconceptions that people have about it. I ended up deleting most of those parts in the rewrites.

Then I read Albert Zuckerman’s book “How to Write the Blockbuster Novel” and decided I wanted to write a blockbuster novel and make a ton of money. In many ways, that book is my best work, but the one that has the least interest for agents and editors.

The third book I wrote because I read “The Writer’s Journey” by Christopher Vogler and I wanted to write a mythic journey story. And debunk the Hollywood myths about the mafia. And make a lot of money.

The fourth book was a compendium of conspiracy theories — a different way of looking at the world. (Interestingly enough, it was also the first novel I conceived. It just took me five years to get the whole thing worked out.)

My current book was supposed to be my declaration of independence from the dictates of the publishing industry. It was supposed to be a silly story, but it’s metamorphosing into something deeply metaphysical, and while it’s doing that, it’s changing the way I look at my writing and myself. I’m not sure where I want to go with my writing, but I do know I want to be better than I am. To learn how to make every word count. To create a vivid world. To make it mean something.

I wanted to be a good storyteller. I  never really had any interest in writing the great American novel, but because of the changes my WIP are bringing, I’ve been getting the feeling that I want to get so good at both storytelling and writing that I will not be ignored. In the end, I want to make a difference, even in a small part, in the lives of people who might someday read my books. And yes, I want to say something important.

Why Should I Read Your Novel? Why Should You Read Mine?

Why should I read your novel? Why should anyone? Only you know the answer to that, and you tell us by the story you choose to tell, the characters you choose to create, the themes you choose to develop.

We read not so much to escape our lives but to add meaning, understanding, and depth to our days. If we find nothing but the same old stories told in the same old ways, we come away from the experience intellectually and emotionally unsatisfied. If the characters don’t change in a fundamental way, if they don’t struggle with an idea bigger than they are, we don’t change either.

Too often when I finish reading a book, I wonder why I bothered. The story is stale, the characters undeveloped, the stakes trivial, the theme banal. This is particularly true of books written by prolific authors. After three or four books, they plagiarize themselves, using the same basic characters and plots they did before. Perhaps their first book was fresh, with something new to say, but that something becomes stale with each succeeding book.

Not being a published writer myself, I don’t know how to keep that from happening, especially in today’s book market where an author is expected to churn out a clone every year. And new writers are being steered into that same pattern. We’re told to write in the genre we read because obviously we like the genre and because we are familiar with its conventions. But perhaps the opposite is true. Perhaps we should write in a genre we don’t read so we don’t keep perpetuating clichés. We might unwittingly rehash old stories in the unfamiliar genre, but there is greater chance of saying something new.

My current work-in-progress is developing into an allegorical apocalyptic novel, which is bizarre because I don’t read that particular type of book; I don’t even know if that is a type. What isn’t bizarre, though, is all I am learning by writing in an unfamiliar genre. I may very well be writing a clichéd story — I have no way of knowing — but at least I am coming to it from my own unique viewpoint, not the distilled vision of all the authors who have gone before. And I am learning more about writing from this novel than any of my previous ones because I have to pull what comes next out of the creative ether, not from my memory of the stories I have previously read.

Without a mystery at its core as in my previous works, I have to search for other ways of adding tension to the story such as the inner conflicts that beset my hero. How much freedom is he willing to give up for security? How much security is he willing to give up for security? How much of freedom and security are illusory? And I am becoming cognizant of theme, symbols, and other mythic elements as ways of unifying disparate parts of the story.

So why should you read my book when it’s completed? Because, if I do it right, it will be an entertaining way for you come to terms with one of the major dilemmas facing us today, and it will take you into the life of a character whose conflicts and choices will help make sense of your own life.

At least, that’s the way story is supposed to work.