Facets of Freedom

It seem fitting that I’ve begun working on my poor stalled novel at a time when we are celebrating freedom. This book was supposed to be my declaration of independence from the dictates of the publishing industry, a story so silly it had no chance of ever being published. Oddly, somewhere along the way, the book metamorphosed from a whimsical story into something deeply metaphysical with a heavy theme: freedom vs. safety. More specifically, the book explores how much freedom we are willing to give up for safety and how much safety we are willing to give up for freedom.

Robert McfireworksKee, author of Story, wrote: “The revelation of true character in contradiction to characterization (the sum of all observable qualities) is fundamental to all fine storytelling. What seems is not what is. People are not what they appear to be. A hidden nature waits concealed behind the facade of traits.”

If my hero doesn’t know what he truly wants until he gets it, it will add another dimension to this theme. He first chooses freedom because he believes he wants freedom more than anything. Next he chooses incarceration and safety because survival becomes the most important thing to him. Then he chooses the excitement and danger of freedom over the boredom of safety because he wants to feel alive, to participate in creation, if only to create himself. Finally he accepts responsibility, which is a different facet of freedom (without responsibility, freedom is merely self-indulgence), and it turns out this is what he wanted all along.

By giving Chip an inner character in contradiction to his outer one, he should become a richer character, which in turn will allow the story to explore all the facets of the theme rather than the simple one of freedom vs. safety.

At least that’s the plan.

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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.

The Kind of Fiction I Grew Up On

On Malcom Campbell’s blog post yesterday, BOOK BITS: ‘Black Beauty,’ Plagiarism, Donna Small, Larry McMurtry’s ‘Custer,’ Book stories for the election, he described “traditional fiction” as the kind of fiction we grew up on before novels started getting whittled down to novella-lengths and forced into marketing categories. Dare I say, literary fiction is what’s left after publishers and booksellers have sliced and diced readers and books into every possible pigeonhole, slot and category they can possibly imagine? We are, I think, so scared of making our own decisions about what we read these days, that we cannot pick up a book without knowing how it’s been tagged, labeled, categorized and genrefied.”

Ah! Now I have a term for the sort of fiction I write, and it’s the perfect term — traditional fiction. My novels are not genre fiction in any way, and those who try to fit the stories into such pigeonholes end up not liking them. There is not enough romance for the romance readers, not enough horror for the apocalyptic crowd, not enough villainry for the thriller lovers, not enough grue for the horror aficionados, not enough science or fantasy for the scifi folks.

Each of those elements has a place in my books, of course, since each aspect is part of the story’s big picture (in the same way those elements make up the big picture of our lives), but none overwhelms the basic intent of my stories, which is to tell a satisfying tale with archetypal characters and classic themes that can last beyond the fads of the day. In other words, a traditional novel.

In A Spark of Heavenly Fire, for example, there is plenty of horror, such as the gruesome end of those afflicted with the red death, but generally the horror is more subtle than visceral — empty streets instead of bodies piled everywhere, struggles to maintain a semblance of normality instead of rioting. The experiments done on humans during both the hot wars and the cold wars twentieth century are not experienced first hand by the characters, but the slow reveal of those old horrors affect them deeply nonetheless.

A Spark of Heavenly Fire explores the theme of love in all its guises, not just romance, but friendship, caring, trust. There is love mixed in the villainry, too, because someone had to have lovingly created the organism that caused the red death. Unlike genre stories, there is no hero trying to stop the villain before he can release his “baby.” The deed had been committed before the story even began. We don’t see the story from the villain’s eyes as in a thriller, and it’s only at the end that we realize with what love and glee the villain had set his creation free.

More than horror or history, romance or mystery, A Spark of Heavenly Fire is the story of ordinary women who found only failure in the ordinary world where everyone else seemed to find success, but when the world turned upside down, they found their place and their worth, and they came alive. As Washington Irving wrote, “There is in every true woman’s heart, a spark of heavenly fire, which lies dormant in the broad daylight of prosperity, but which kindles up and beams and blazes in the dark hour of adversity.

This is the kind of fiction I grew up on as a reader, the sort of traditional story that digs deep so that what affects the characters also affects the readers, the sort of ungenrefied story I have always loved. And it’s the kind of fiction I grew up on as a writer. It was halfway through writing A Spark of Heavenly Fire that everything clicked and I became a writer.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the conspiracy 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+

Building Better Plots

In Building Better Plots, Robert Kernen provides a quick quiz to help you decide if your subject matter is strong enough to sustain a novel. I thought these questions were interesting enough to pass along:

Does your concept create obstacles that effectively challenge the characters? If so, which specific elements will be the source of that challenge?

Does your concept provide a strong backdrop for exploring the strengths and limitations and psychology of your characters? What specific elements does the plot have that provide vivid comparisons and contrasts that will delineate your character in intriguing ways?

Does your concept provide a strong environment for the messages and themes you want to explore? What metaphors and motifs grown naturally out of that environment will illuminate those themes and messages?

Does your concept provide any realistic hooks that will make it easy for the audience to relate to? What elements will they relate to? Even if you are writing science fiction or fantasy, you will want to give your audience some element to which they can connect their sympathy.

Does your concept provide enough tension to hold the audience’s interest? What are those sources of tension?

The questions seem a bit complicated to help create a story — by the time you’ve answered them all, you’d be sick of the story — but it seems they would be ideal as a tool to help clarify a muddy middle.

Persisting in Delusion

“It is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.” — Carl Sagan

Is this true? When it comes to the cosmic universe, perhaps. When it comes to our personal universe, is it better to persist in delusion? Isn’t that what a dream is, a delusion? The dream might be attainable with luck and hard work, in which case it’s not a delusion. If it is not attainable, is it better to hold on to the dream or is it better to persist in delusion?

I used to think reality was important — I spent my life trying to get down to the rock bottom of “what is” (as opposed to what we think is). I studied particle physics and quantum mechanics (for fun, can you imagine that?) and discovered that every particle can be divided into smaller particles and those particles can be divided, until what you end up is nothing. Or a wave. Or a thought. Or something that changes every time you look at it.

Now I don’t know if reality is all it’s cracked up to be. If our perceptions can change “what is” at the quantum level, perhaps it can change life at the macro level where we live. If so, it might be better to persist in delusion.

I explore this theme of delusion (or illusion, which perhaps comes down to the same thing) in all of my books: What is truth? What is reality? Who are we, really — are we our memories, our experiences, our dreams? And I still don’t have an answer.

So what does this have to do with my Daughter Am I blog tour? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps I am deluding myself that what I am doing will increase sales, increase name recognition, increase my network of friends. (The last is not a delusion — I am making new contacts.) And if this tour turns out to be some cosmic illusion, is it still worth persisting? Of course it is. It’s the doing that’s important — the quest.

Very strange — these are the thoughts that usually strike me late at night, and here it is early afternoon. Must have something to do with all those late nights. Or maybe it’s just an illusion.

Today I am guesting at Alan Baxter’s blog, talking about writing tools. You know the ones I mean — hammers and chisels. Please stop by and say hi. At least there, the talk is much more concrete.  You can find me here — Alan Baxter: The Word.

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The Themes of Our Lives

I’ve been thinking about themes lately — the themes of our lives, the themes of our stories, the themes that permeate our relationships. (Technically, relationships fall under the category of the themes of our lives, but I like to do thing in threes, and I couldn’t think of a third theme category.)

Someone asked me recently if I ever considered writing a novelization of my life, and I just laughed. There is no story in my life — nothing noteworthy ever happened to me, and I never did anything that millions of others didn’t also do. Still, the question niggled, and a couple of days later I saw a theme: sometimes I’ve put aside my dream to try to help someone achieve theirs. Now that would make a good “three bears story.” The first time perhaps my namesake gave too little when she tried to help someone, and the other person didn’t achieve his or her dream either. The second time she might have given too much and still neither of them got their dream. The third time she gets it right, and everyone wins. In real life I haven’t yet gotten it right, but I’m working on it.

I also read a comment that “nothing changes if nothing changes,” which sounds like a good theme for a book. Perhaps an older woman is whining that nothing ever changes in her life, and someone tells her that nothing changes if nothing changes, so she decides to make a simple change — perhaps henna her hair or buy a dress that is out of character or go to a museum. And from that simple change comes a ripple of changes, so at the end, she ends up completely different.

Another comment was “intimacy is so hard and manipulation is so easy,” which kept my mind occupied for days on end. How much of intimacy is manipulation? If someone tells you they love you, is it manipulation, or is it intimacy? I suppose it depends on the intent, the motivation. Intimacy vs. manipulation would be a fun theme to explore in a novel.

Something else I read: “Every crisis creates a new normal.” Every time something happens to a person or a character, he must readjust his thinking to accept the new normal. How far out of the normal does he have to go before he becomes a saint or a monster? The original comment had to do with accepting the crises of age, but as a theme, it can mean any sort of crisis.

So, what are the themes of your stories, the themes of your lives, the themes you’ve written, the themes you’ve read, the themes you’d like to write?

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