Writing Reality – Or Escaping It

A quick thought for today:

Writers write what’s real. They try to connect with some reality in the readers’ experience, and inspire emotions that complement the work they write. They try to represent the world as it truly is. That is one theory of writing’s purpose, anyway.

The problem is, reality really bites.

I wanted to improve as a writer this year. I gritted my teeth and tried to dredge up something of reality – bad experiences as well as good (though I’d be the first to admit my own real problems may barely phase anyone else.) I wrote down some stuff that for me was ‘dark.’

Then a lot of awful stuff happened in the world (some of which is obviously in the news, and some of which is just learning things about people you never wanted to know.) Then my ability to capture the true darkness in words falls so far short.

Because it’s so hard for me to face the depths of darkness. And I don’t want to do it.

Some writers can – dive into the depths of evil and show it for what it is to the world. And this is important. But is it what I – who shrinks from true evil and know its true strength is far beyond my own- am meant to do?

Then I escaped into the movie Casablanca – a fictional world which pretends to represent reality but in actuality stereotypes and simplifies it – and was drawn in. The story took me away. It ended on hope.

And now I believe there can be two types of creators/writers – those who don’t flinch from portraying problems and showing the ugliness of reality. And those writers who help escape from reality, and use fiction to remind us what it’s like to hope.

In real life, Harry Potter may’ve never escaped his cupboard. He may’ve been abused his whole young life, or been so psychologically scarred he could never function in any world. Frodo might’ve never gotten out of Mordor. Elizabeth Bennet would’ve end up penniless and husbandless, dependent on the mercy of Mr. Collins in her old age.

But, instead, these stories provide hope and escape, and show me a way to touch on reality without giving into the full terribleness of it.

 

What do you think?

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Filed under On Writing, Randoms & My Life

Join Mark Zuckerberg’s Book Club, Rediscover Why Books Matter

Mark Zuckerberg is starting a book club. A Facebook book club, which seems appropriate, considering he is Mark Zuckerberg.

BUT he said one very insightful thing that should give everyone hope for millenials – we aren’t necessarily shallow, visual-obsessed youngsters with short attention spans. At least, maybe not if we join Mark’s book club.

Here’s what he said:

“Books allow you to fully explore a topic and immerse yourself in a deeper way than most media today. I’m looking forward to shifting more of my media diet towards reading books.”

The thing is, he is absolutely right. How many times have I gone looking for information on the internet, only to find the absolute basics of a topic repeated over and over again, but no info beyond that? I remember, in my second English course in university, finally resorting to the library to find sources on Sherlock Holmes, A Scandal in Bohemia, and was stunned to find TONS of scholarly articles I could use. My thought at the time was – if it’s not on the internet or scholarly internet databases, it doesn’t really exist, right? But it turns out there’s still a level of detail not available on the internet.

(No, I’ll be honest – I just wanted an excuse not to leave my computer and walk to the library…)

So – go Mark Zuckerberg! If anyone can make our surface-level-knowledge-obsessed culture realize this is a shortcoming, it might be you!

Also, apparently both print and ebook versions of Mark’s first recommendation flew off the shelves – print is surprisingly still popular, one article concludes. Of course it is. Print will never die! Go ebooks (and do check out the ones I wrote ), but yeah, print is here to stay.

Tell me – are you planning to join Mark Zuckerberg’s book club. Or maybe another one? New Year’s reading resolutions, here we come!

  • (I, for one, hope to tackle more ‘ classic’ novels this year. I’ll update you on how that goes in a couple months.)(No, I’ll be honest.

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Must-Reads at Stories and Stuff in 2014

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By Ken Whytock, licensed under CC-BY-NC 2.0

I started this blog in 2009 – wow, that’s a lot of blogging! This year was definitely less active for me in the posting department, as I’ve had a lot going on (see Paris, and my Job and Apartment update). However, I refuse to neglect this blog! I love to debate the joy of stories with you all – as both a writer and a reader. Stories need to be not just heard, but chewed over and hashed out between us all before they solidly enter the age-long human conversation. Let’s soldier on with this! So this blog will not die any time soon, though I think the upcoming year will be a good time to branch out and try new things.

However, if you’ve enjoyed stopping by here this year, or even if this is one of your first visits, check out what was big at Stories and Stuff this year in the list below. Then check out the rest of my work by visiting my Stories tab up at the top.

Anyway, the Top Five Posts:

1.) J.K. Rowling is Not Dead – But Why Does She Want You to Know What Harry’s Up To?

This post was a response to J.K. Rowling’s update on her Harry Potter world – in other words, the explosive revelation that Ron and Hermione’s marriage might have been a ‘mistake.’ Obviously this was going to be a top post! In it, I dissect the dilemma of how much control an author should have over characters once they finish a work. Do they still get the last word on what’s going on in the characters’ lives? Or can we declared ‘death of the author’ and continue the characters’ lives in whatever vein we, the fans, please?

2.) Rant on Ruining the English Language

Here I take a go at people who get snobbish about the English language, at the expense of allowing English to change. One of the wonderful things about English is its flexibility and ability to change as people use it.

3.) Observations on Being Single, Revisited

Ah, of course everyone longs for my insights into single-ness.

4.) Independent Bookstores Have NOT Disappeared – They’re Doing Fine, Actually

My happy update explaining why ebooks has not killed the printed book – or bookstores – and that hopefully the two will comfortably coexist.

5.) Why ‘Write What You Love’ Means all Fiction is Fanfiction

Secondly, I love to see several of my older posts are still popular! Number one among them is ‘Tolkien’s ‘Take That!’ to Shakespeare.’ I guess The Hobbit has kept Tolkien pretty relevant in 2014, and I am always happy when Tolkien is popular.

My top piece of fiction hosted here is ‘Thoughts of Mr. Knightley,’ a Jane Austen-inspired vignette I posted a few years ago. I do plan to sharpen my writing skills by trying out a few more of these in the upcoming year, so stay tuned for that!

When it comes to my ebooks, Prince Charming is by and away the favourite – but I also repackaged Why Polly? Into a nicer ebook format, which has been successful. (Some of you may remember this one being serialized right here on this blog!) Thanks to all of you who supported these ventures by buying, reviewing and sharing these stories. More ebooks to come in 2015, as always!

And tell me in the comments below how your holidays have been! Any big goals for 2015 for all of you?

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Filed under -- My Life and Other Randoms

How to Catch a Man 101: Show More Affection Than You Feel

AKA Dating Advice from Dear Jane Austen

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Bingley and Jane, by C.E. Brooks. {PD-US}

“There are very few of us who have heart enough to be really in love without encouragement,” [said Charlotte]. “In nine cases out of ten, a woman had better show more affection than she feels. Bingley likes your sister undoubtedly; but he may never do more than like her, if she does not help him on.”

- Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 6

Here’s the trouble with romance!

Let me start off by saying this is not true in most books and movies out there. If you took the romance advice of most plots, you’d begin to think the way to fall in love with someone is to be as deliberately antagonistic as possible. Insult him to his face! Slap him! Try to avoid him as much as possible – if he’s really fallen in love with you during that half second that you met, he’ll keep coming back for more. Beyond any reasonable expectation, he’ll keep coming back again and again and again, no matter how much you insist you don’t want to see him. He’ll wait for you to change your mind.

Isn’t that ridiculous?

So – more evidence Jane Austen is a cut above (many) other romance writers out there! She’s dealing with reality here. She’s dealing with the reality most people aren’t masochistic enough to keep chasing someone who keeps pushing them down. Most people aren’t that good with rejection.

But I said this was the trouble with romance, didn’t I? Why is this a reality a problem?

Well, mostly because you have to show a lot of interest before you even know you’re interested, logically.

Most people aren’t going to hang around forever while the person they just felt a flash of attraction to makes up their mind, especially if that dithering looks a shade too similar to rejection. Move on. Plenty of fish in the sea. No time for this.

Not that there’s anything wrong with this – it’s just reality! Just the crazy system we have to live in. It makes us appreciate the true romances that actually work out, that’s all.

And in case you think I’m reading too much into Jane Austen, I don’t think she completely disagrees with her character, Charlotte Lucas (the character I’m quoting up at the top). After all, Elizabeth’s sister Jane does lose Bingley because she is too guarded and he can’t tell how much she likes him. Neither can any of Bingley’s friends.

Elizabeth argues to Charlotte that Jane is just taking her time to get to know Bingley (which seems to be quite sensible). Charlotte doubts whether this is a good strategy for the situation.

Here is Charlotte’s very practical (perhaps cynical?) solution:

“Jane should therefore make the most of every half hour in which she can command his attention. When she is secure of him, there will be leisure for falling in love as much as she chooses.”

Here’s where I (and perhaps Jane Austen) part ways with Charlotte’s logic. Making someone else fall for you first, before you decide to fall – that seems little self-centered. A little too self-centered.

What’s the solution then?

There isn’t one. That’s why romance is a mystery. That’s why it’s beautiful when it sprouts mutually for two people at the same time, and miserable when it only sprouts for one of them. That’s why we eternally write books and movies and plays about it. Because we can’t figure it out.

There’s my thoughts on it, anyway. Have a Merry Christmas, everyone!

(Oh, and stay tuned to this blog in the upcoming weeks! There may be some exciting changes and experiments in the new year!)

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Filed under Jane Austen, Quotables, True Romance

Update! And Quotes!

Whoa, haven’t blogged for a while! What’s been going on? Well, for one thing – I moved. A huge undertaking, as it turns also. Secondly – I got a new job. I now work in, wait for it… a library! How appropriate!

(Where did I work before? Well, actually I sold computers for Microsoft. Turns out having a history degree is surprisingly flexible, and not just for honing your writing skills :) )

Anyway, while I was moving I came across this, which I decided to share with you all.

WP_20141205_16_53_26_ProIt’s my old high school binder! I (or some of my friends) lovingly inscribed quotes from books and other things all over the front of it, and it’s a great trip down memory lane to see what I thought was important enough to decorate my binder with back then. I don’t remember where they are all from though, so if you do know, let me know! Here they are, in no particular order:

– Don’t Panic (the source for this one is rather obvious)

– “Alas, earwax!” (also, rather obvious)

– “Me, sir? Pool, sir? But I don’t know how to swim!” (the excellent ending lines to Go Jump in the Pool! – otherwise known as the first Bruno & Boots book I ever read (and loved))

– “If you were waiting for the opportune moment – that was it.” (Pirates was a bit of an obsession in my school)

– Deep Magic from Before the Dawn of Time (I wanted a Chronicles of Narnia reference on there. Now I feel like I should’ve put the one about ‘not a tame lion.’)

– “All that is gold does not glitter.” (I personally had a bit of an obsession with Lord of the Rings.)

– “…in a circle and suppose, but the answer sits in the middle and knows.” (Someone else inscribed this quote and it sounds kind of cool, but I have no idea where it’s from, and the first words of it are rubbed away…)

– “Bad smell plus good smell does not equal no smell.” (From The Twinkie Squad, another enjoyable story by Gordon Korman)

– “If I got mine and you got yours, then we got ours. So what are we waiting for?” (Another friend’s contribution. It sounds like a song lyric to me?)

– Correlation does not imply Causation. (Wow. Good thing I inscribed that on my memory).

– “I must be the only person in the world ever to be punished for breaking my neck!” (At first I couldn’t remember this quote either, but the only book it makes sense to come from is The Lives of Christopher Chant. Or possibility Charmed Life. Both are wonderful.)

What works were you a fan of in high school?

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Filed under -- My Life and Other Randoms, Quotables

Tell Me About Your Favourite Bookstore

Last Friday The Guardian published a wonderful list of bookstores worldwide – including one from Canada, woohoo! Any book-lover knows there is no shortage of lovable bookstores out there, so which is your favourite? I’d have to say, from The Guardian‘s list, I want to visit the bookstore-in-a-van that sells Portuguese books translated into English. Leakey’s, in Scotland, looks worth visiting too.

Shakespeare & Company, in Paris, is not included in this list – I have a feeling it might’ve been too cliche to include such a famous landmark. But in case you’ve forgotten, here’s my picture of the place from when I visited it last April!

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What’s my favourite library? I blogged about it once before. Share yours below!

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Filed under -- My Life and Other Randoms

Do Spoilers Spoil Stories?

Spoilers, by Paulina Van VlietSpoilers ruin everything. They rip out ask the suspense and enjoyment, they wreck – Wait, you’re saying people actually like a work MORE if it’s been spoiled for them? Are you serious?

This is what Derek Thompson argues in “In Defense of Spoilers.” Apparently, anticipation of a twist can take away our enjoyment of the parts of the movie or book that don’t lead up to the twist. Or maybe we just like predictability. Anyway, research by psychologists has shown people rate stories higher when all the plot twists have been spoiled for them ahead of time.

Okay, okay, there’s truth in this.

For example, I’ll use Emma, by Jane Austen. I’ve already written it was much better the second time I read it, and that was mainly because I knew what was going to happen. The first time I didn’t know, so I didn’t think anything was happening. Anyone who’s read it knows it’s a lot of descriptions of conversations in a quiet English town. But it’s also been described as ‘a mystery without a murder’ – there’s so many clues in all the ‘nothing’ that goes on, and it all adds up to something. But the first time you read it, you don’t realized there’s a mystery at all. And I, at first, was a bit bored and confused.

And shouldn’t this research make sense? Don’t we tell the same stories over and over again? How many times has the Cinderella plot been used? (Including by me, here). And I’ve already admitted I’ll watch almost any version of retelling of Pride and Prejudice, over and over again.

So we love the same old stories, the seven basic plots, the Save the Cat story outline… We might as well stop with the attempts at original stories, right? Might as well quit worrying about spoilers. We’d enjoy everything so much more that way.

No, but wait! There’s something else…

When we worry about spoilers, we worry about losing that sense of surprise and satisfaction when we see the pieces suddenly fit together. Not every work is good at this, but every once in a while we come across a book that manages to turn itself inside-out in the last pages. The turn of events blows your mind.

This elusive feeling is something we chase in every movie and novel we read (or, at least, I do). You can enjoy a movie or a book without it. You can love a book that doesn’t give you this feeling. But this feeling is unique enough and wonderful enough it’s worth looking for.

Spoilers, of course, steal the opportunity fo this feeling away.

Back to Emma – your first initial read where you think nothing is going on is so important to the work! Because it’s that first read where you’re in Emma’s point of view, it’s that first read where you trust her and believe whatever she thinks she sees. There’s no sensations to compare your second read to if you haven’t had the first. You can hunt for clues the whole time on your first read instead, but you ARE missing out on something if you know what you’re looking for.

And that’s the whole point of avoiding spoilers, isn’t it? There’s an experience you’ll miss if someone spoils it for you. You’ll lose something you’ll never get back, and you’ll never know if there’s any amount of enjoyment that will make up for losing that initial experience. You’ll never know what that would’ve felt like.

Plot twists shouldn’t be the end-goal for every book or movie. Clearly, people can enjoy stories that are predictable. But I’d argue we should still try to prevent spoilers as a service to our fellow humans, because some experiences can’t be recreated once spoiled. People can at least try for that mind-turning experience. And if spoilers improve the experience – well, that’s what a second reading is for.

What’s your thoughts on spoilers?

 

Illustration by Paulina Van Vliet. All rights reserved.

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Filed under Bookish Thoughts, Prince Charming Extras

Useful Words English Doesn’t Have

Anyone who’s ever started learning another language has come across words that just don’t translate into English. My favorites are ‘saudades,’ from Portuguese (meaning a feeling of longing, melancholy or nostalgia), and ‘gezellig,’ from Dutch (meaning a nice atmosphere, but also belonging and time spent with loved ones). Today, Slate published an excerpt from Lost in Translation that lists many more.

My favorite is ‘tretar,’ which apparently means a third refill of coffee in Swedish. This sounds like a very useful word! Go check out the original article to find some more useful words we don’t have in English. The accompanying artistic diagrams are very sweet too.

What’s your favorite word that doesn’t translate? Are there any words from English that don’t translate well to other languages?

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Why Own Unread Books?

Unread Books

Unread Books, by Paulina Van Vliet. All rights reserved.

I used to never buy a book I hadn’t read. That was what libraries were for – I didn’t want to buy something that might be garbage. Only after I knew the quality of the book would I buy a copy for myself. However, I have started seeing the error of my ways.

Two recent blog posts brought this to my attention. The first – ‘The Virtue of Unread Books’ – argues that unread books are not merely pages on a shelf, but collectively they express an idea. When you stockpile books you’ve already read, Scott James argues, you’re basically making a monument to your accomplishment. Especially if you never re-read them. Look at what a well-rounded reader I am, you might be saying.

In contrast, he argues, a shelf of unread books hints at more than past triumphs – it symbolizes possibility. A well-selected library opens the mind to what could be read and learned. And so, hopefully, you might actually go on to read and learn.

The second post, ‘Busting a Book-Buying Myth,’ is directed at why you should buy books you may not read, rather than about owning them, but it comes down to the same thing in the end. Here, Ian Carmichael argues that even if you buy books you never finish, but you did get something useful out of them, it might be worth it. If it’s a useful book, at a reasonable price, why not buy it, even if it’s on an impulse? Also, if your owning of the book allows the book to give pleasure or information to someone who is not you – someone who borrows it, or happens to read it at your house – then it is worthwhile to own it as well. I really enjoyed this post, because it gave me a different perspective on my book-buying habits.

Now, for my opinion:

Absolutely, a library should be more than a monument to what you have read in your life. It could be what you should read, or books you know would give pleasure to others (visitors to your home, or people you lend your books to).

However, just because I own a book and intend to read it, doesn’t mean I will. In fact, it makes it a bit more likely I won’t. I’ll procrastinate because I know I’ll always have it, right there on my bookshelf for when I have ‘more time.’ But books I don’t own, well, those I better read quick.

This, however, is not an excuse for me not to buy and own books I should read – their collective spines on my shelf may someday shame me into picking them up. After all, I do get immeasurable joy from sitting in front of shelves of excellent books, even if I haven’t read them yet, because I know there are so many treasures for me yet to discover. This joy alone gives well-selected libraries a reason to exist.

Secondly, I think that using your library as a source of information – well, that works better for some things than others. It works great for classics. If I want to know what Herodotus said about the Persian wars, I can flip through it and look it up. Or if I forget a certain quotation from Jane Austen – same deal. But when it comes down to information more often classified as ‘facts’ or ‘non fiction,’ I’d consult the internet before my library. First, it’s faster. It’s more likely the internet has addressed that topic, rather than the off-chance I bought a book on the topic once. I can get multiple points of view on that ‘fact’ and try to determine if it should be called a fact. And, lastly but not least important, it is far easier to find info that includes the most recent updates online than in the encyclopedia you bought a decade ago.

Of course, for real, in-depth research the internet often falls short of a book, but in the case you need an excellent, well-researched and written source on something, the library is the place to look. After all, if you owned a library of your own on the most recent, up to date info on every topic you cared about, you might just be constructing a monument to your own interests after all.

So, readers, what do you think? Have you read every book that sits on your shelves, or must you admit there are a couple you haven’t cracked open? Is it worth owning them anyway?

 

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Do You Hear Voices In Your Head? (While Reading)

Do you hear voices in your head? When you’re reading, I mean. Of course I mean when you’re reading. I’m not trying to suggest anyone is crazy…

I mean, do you hear voices of narrators and characters speaking out loud in your head when you’re reading?

I’d never thought about this before. I’m struggling to remember what I actually hear when I read, but I think I enter the fictional world so completely that it’s hard for me to pin down individual sensations when I snap out of it. However, many people do hear voices. And accents.

This phenomenon was brought by to me by a lovely lady I was having lunch with this week. She insisted she heard books by Welsh authors read out in her head in a Welsh accent, and British authors in a British one. Until this point, I’d never considered this. I guess I always imagined everyone experienced books in exactly the same way as me.

But that would be a terribly ridiculous assumption, wouldn’t it? No one experiences the same book in exactly the same way. That’s part of the fun!

(I do find author’s accent sort of affect the overall tone of a work while I’m reading – C.S. Lewis, being British, has a different atmosphere in his books than others, but I feel that might be more due to word choices. Like when he described a hypothetical man as a lunatic – “on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg.” Why a poached egg, precisely?)

Just to prove this is not in the head of only one person in this world, I will point you to an article in The Guardian where readers describe all sorts of audible and visual experiences while reading, including – you guessed it, people who are not sure they hear anything at all. Very interesting read! There are all kinds of people in the world, after all.

Okay, now I am off to power-read three chapter of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which the informal book club I belong to has decided to read next.

Leave your experiences with disembodied voices in the comments! Do you hear voices when you read?

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