Literary Theory (For Michael)

Michael suggested this topic, and when he did, he probably knew it was too broad to fit into a single post.  It’s something he’s been studying for years.  It’s something that the lit-fic crowd argues over.  From what I can tell, there’s not even great consensus on what literary theory even means.

Instead of wandering off into sophistry, I’ll talk about what this topic means to me: what does it take to tell a good story?

That’s something I can talk about.  The topic is still broad to the point of being unwieldy, but I think I can get into the nuts and bolts for a little while.


A good story should invoke the reader’s imagination.

Consider one of the first things you read when you first started reading.  A nursery rhyme.

Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water.

Jack fell down and broke his crown, and Jill came tumbling after.

There’s not much to this story, but there is enough to evoke the imagination.  We have two characters.  We probably imagine them as children, but that’s most likely because there had been illustration accompanying the poem.  We know what these characters are doing, we have a little bit of setting (the hill) and we’ve thrust the characters into some kind of crisis.  Jack is definitely hurt, and Jill probably isn’t doing much better.

One of the great things about this story is that it uses verbs that you can imagine.  Jack went to fetch.  He fell, and Jill tumbled.  These are good verbs.  They paint an image.

Let’s take Jack and Jill and try giving them another scenario, with verbs that are less strong.

Jack liked Jill, in the valley or on the hill, and wanted to get her alone

If Jill liked Jack just as much back, do you think they’ll have sins to atone?

It’s a little wonky.  Give me a break.  I just made it up on the spot.

But I think it demonstrates what I was talking about.  It’s the same number of lines, but there are no verbs that drive the story.  Jack liked, Jack wanted, Jill liked, you think.  None of these verbs paint an image.  They don’t invoke the imagination.

The original Jack and Jill can stand on its own because it uses good verbs.  This addendum, on the other hand, doesn’t give the reader anything to work with.  There are still a couple of characters, but they’re not doing anything visible.  They are no longer in a setting.  Nothing has happened that the reader can imagine.


A good story should give the reader just what they need to see the story, and not a jot more.

Let’s consider Jack and Jill again.  We have enough in those two sentences that we get the story.  We could do with more, but we don’t need it.  We assume Jack is a boy and Jill is a girl, based on their names.  Depending on the tale we’re trying to tell, we could include more details.  We could completely change it up.

Let’s make it scandalous!

Jack, a young man from the wrong side of the tracks, took hold of Jill’s hand, her dark skin contrasting with his.  He pulled her along the beaten path up the shallow hill, following the way that so many teenagers like them had gone before.  He looked over his shoulder, first at his lover, then beyond.  The path behind them remained empty.  They climbed alone.

That’s not too bad.  We have a different idea of what they look like.  They’re older, and the reason they’re climbing the hill is no longer as innocent as to fetch some water.

In this example, I still haven’t given that much in the way of details, but the details I provided are enough to get the point across.  I included the important details (their skin color, their age) and left the rest for the reader to imagine on their own.

The reader should always be allowed to imagine their own details.  If everything is spelled out for them, they are no longer engaged, and their enjoyment is diminished.

Here is an example of what not to do.

Jack Johnson, a 17 year old white American with a hint of Native American heritage expressed through his dark eyes and patchy facial hair, wore partially faded denim jeans, a black t-shirt, and steel-toed boots that came to him second-hand.  The black t-shirt once held a logo, but time and washing had faded the image to illegibility.  Standing just under six feet tall and weighing 190 pounds, Jack towered over his companion, Jill Stevens.  Jill, an African American girl, wore…

I’m bored writing this.  None of these extraneous details are necessary for the story.  In a longer narrative, these details might be important, and maybe they should be included.  But they certainly shouldn’t be dumped on the reader as one huge info block.  For the story we’re trying to tell, that level of detail is too much and goes too far.


A good story invokes the reader’s emotions.

Let’s leave Jack and Jill alone for a moment, and head over to Les Miz.

I don’t cry often, but when I need to, I listen to Les Miz.  I get swept up in the story of the musical, and towards the end, one line is delivered that shatters all of my walls and makes me cry:

Come with me where chains will never bind you

That line is the culmination of a journey that has taken us across Jean Val Jean’s life.  It’s such a small description of heaven, and yet, it tears me up.  For Jean Val Jean, a place where he never needs to be worried about being chained again is heaven.  That speaks to his character.  It speaks to the simple beauty of heaven.  It hits me hard, every time.

It doesn’t take much to get a hold of the reader’s emotions.  In the Jean Val Jean example, I’m experiencing joy and relief and peace because that’s what the character is going through in that moment.

That’s the trick.  Give your readers characters that they can relate to, and when you character experiences an emotion, your reader will experience the same emotion.

I think that’s why I don’t like Grim-Dark.  My last attempt into that genre made me very upset.  I stopped liking any of the characters, and the emotions I was going through were just a wretched slog.  Other people like Grim-Dark.  More power to them.  A person may be able to go to town on a plate of ghost peppers, but I’m not going to consider that a meal.  I don’t consider Grim-Dark (at least what I’ve seen of it) to be good storytelling, either.

The ideas that invoke your reader’s emotions don’t have to be complicated.  A father’s love for his child.  The persistence of a grave injustice.  Lovers coming together, in spite of the odds.

If you want an example of a storyteller invoking a reader’s emotions through simple ideas, I highly recommend reading Dan Simmons’ Hyperion.  You don’t have to read the others in the series.  Just read that first one.  It’s amazing.


A good story sits on top of good prose.

This is more of a guideline than a rule.  It’s also one of those areas that can be improved without a huge effort on the part of the writer.

Consider the following example:

Arthur was sitting in a bar.  He was looking at a postcard from his partner.  The bar was empty except for a few regulars and the smell of stale beer.

This is three examples of passive voice.  Honestly, it’s okay to fall into passive voice every once in a while.  If you have a whole page of this crap, though, you have some work to do.  And it’s easy work.

Here’s how I would revise this:

Arthur sat alone in a bar.  He looked from his postcard to his drink, barely touched.  Behind him, empty chairs and empty tables huddled beneath a broken ceiling fan, which did nothing to diminish the scent of stale beer or wasted dreams.

It’s still not my best work, but the sentences are stronger.  The verbs are doing work.

I think this example does a pretty good job of demonstrating a previous point as well, which is that it evokes emotions.  Without coming right out and stating it, we get the impression that Arthur is sad and alone.  That’s the idea that we wanted to get across.  Along with that, you get glimpses of the setting.  The atmosphere lends itself to the emotions I’m looking to convey.

I’m sure other writers might look at that example and tear it apart for different reasons.  Good prose can be a subjective game.  If you have strong characters, a good plot, and a solid setting, you can get by with weaker prose.  Just look at the latest books in Jim Butcher’s Dresden series.


There are other things I could talk about, such as strong characterization, cohesiveness of plot, consistency, clarity, and freshness, but I think these main points are enough.  There’s also the matter of “show, don’t tell,” but I think we’ve covered that indirectly.

Most of the writer’s journey is subjective.  What’s important to one may not be important to another.  And reader’s tastes are subjective, too.  And the end of the day, at the end of the story, if the reader didn’t like what you wrote, then it doesn’t matter what advice you take.

As writers, our job is to deliver the best story we can to our readers.  The advice I’ve offered here should help, but do whatever you need to in order to achieve that one objective.


Current Events: 20 October 2017

Before I jump into today’s topic, I just have to say that this will probably be the most challenging post I’ve written all month.  There are two reasons:

  1. I’m still dealing with the kidney stone.  For such a little guy, it just does not want to proceed to the bladder and leave me in peace.  I’ve spent most of the day in bed, waking up every 3 hours when the pain starts to show itself.  I’m taking Percocet every 4 hours, so throughout the day, I’ve had to push through moments of terror.  Will the pain get intense enough that I can’t keep anything down?  Or will the drugs work in time?  It’s been touch and go all day.
  2. I’ve never set out to specifically editorialize before.  I’ve done it many, many times, but it’s always been flow of consciousness.  Tonight I’m going to read several stories, provide links to them, a summary, and then my opinions.  Laid out like that, it feels daunting.

If you wind up liking this kind of post, please let me know.  Or if you hate this kind of post, let me know that, too.


1. Kelly made inaccurate claims about lawmaker in feud over Trump’s condolence call

This article is the next in a dark chapter featuring Trump and his attempt to console the widow of a man that gave his life in the service of his country.  The main thrust of this whole article is to establish credibility for Congresswoman Wilson while at the same time showing that General Kelly is losing credibility.

We’re definitely getting off into the weeds, now.  The renaming of the federal building and Congresswoman Wilson’s comments at the event help establish her credibility, but it also takes us further away from what’s important: La David Johnson’s grieving widow.

Trump’s staff is in a bind, because they have to defend Trump.  That’s their job.  They probably know better than any of us that Trump is not good at consoling other people.  So they’re having to take desperate swings in order to tear down Congresswoman Wilson.  Sarah Sanders even went on to say that questioning a four star general’s words are inappropriate.

The best thing Trump’s staff can do is move on to the next thing.  Defending the indefensible doesn’t work out.  I’m sure it’s not doing La David Johnson’s widow any good, either.

My hope is that this particular item will fizzle out by the end of the weekend.  But it’s hard to say, especially when Trump himself keeps bringing it back up via Twitter.


2. Appeals Court Sets Terms For Abortion For Teen Immigrant

A 17 year old illegal immigrant is seeking an abortion.  The lower court ruled that she could pursue it, but the higher court has put some stipulations on it.  She has to have a sponsor by the end of the month, otherwise, the matter goes back into the courts.

There’s not much for me to say on this one, other than it’s an interesting test of conflicting views.  On the one hand, Texas lawmakers don’t want to be a part of an abortion.  On the other hand, they probably don’t want a new child born in the states to an illegal immigrant.  What value means more: anti-abortion, or anti-immigration?


3. Missing California hikers died in apparent murder-suicide

There’s not much I can say about this one, either.  The couple went missing in late July, and they weren’t found until some time in August.  When they were found, they were embracing, with their legs covered to protect them from the sun.

When you hear about murder-suicide, you don’t usually imagine the couple embracing.  It sounds like Mr. Orbeso had been trying to find a merciful ending for them both.  It’s a sad story, regardless.


4. 3 charged in shooting after Richard Spencer speech

Richard Spencer spoke in Florida, and it was so hotly anticipated that the governor declared a state of emergency before the speech even took place.  Spencer’s First Amendment rights were observed, and while people interrupted his speech during protests, the event was largely peaceful.

Three supporters of Spencer, however, took it too far.  They pulled up in their jeep, threw Nazi salutes at each other, and after some provocation, fired a shot at one of the protesters.

It still strikes me as insane that Nazis and their sympathizers are so emboldened these days.  A few days ago, they marched in Charlottesville, the same place they marched with tiki torches before one of their numbers drove into a crowd, injuring many and killing one woman.

I don’t believe that meeting the Nazis with violence is the answer.  But I can appreciate being prepared to answer Nazi violence.


5. Melania Trump Donates Inaugural Ball Gown to Smithsonian

Aside from copying Michelle Obama’s speech and being weak on cyber-bullying, the cause she says she has dedicated herself against, I don’t really have a problem with Melania Trump.  Most of the time, I think she’s a victim.  She didn’t want to go to the White House.  She’s dragged around and shown about like a figurehead.  I sympathize with Melania Trump.  She’s in a difficult position.

She’s as much First Lady as Trump is President.  Love it or hate it, it’s appropriate for her to turn her dress over as a part of American history.

I don’t think history will be kind to either Melania or Donald Trump.  But Melania I feel at least a little bit bad for.  Donald brought this on himself.  Melania has been dragged along, most likely against her will.


6. Many Trump voters who got hurricane relief in Texas aren’t sure Puerto Ricans should

This is an article talking about the views of two elderly couples that voted for Trump.  They don’t have a lot of sympathy for Puerto Rico, and they’re working off of incorrect information.

This article is designed to piss people like me off, I think.

The people of Puerto Rico are Americans.  They are Americans that are still without electricity and clean water.  They’re not lazy.  They’re not looking for handouts.  They need our help, just as the people of Houston needed our help.

Mr Maddox and Mr Hogg can take their opinions of Puerto Rico and stuff it in their gardens like the fertilizer that it is.


And that’s the top news in my feed tonight.  The articles came from several different sources.  Some were of higher quality than others.  If you liked this kind of post, let me know, and I’ll try doing this kind of editorial review more often.


The Importance of Empathy

I’m going to talk about Trump in this post.  I’m going to try to be fair, but I’m also not going to hold anything back.  If you do not like reading criticism directed at our President, you should go ahead and skip this post.  I’ll talk about something else tomorrow.

Today, I went to the emergency room because I had another kidney stone making my life miserable.  The waiting area was full of other people in discomfort, just like me.  While waiting with these other people, I tried to hide my pain.  Not because I wanted to look tough or anything like that, but because I knew that my pain was going to make other people uncomfortable.  So I sat up straight, distracted myself with my phone, and tried not to make anyone uncomfortable.

When I could, I talked with people.  I listened to them about their problems.  One kid had been injured in a car when his Mom had taken a turn too sharp.  I listened to her, and I tried to comfort her.  Another man was in there with chest pains due to a combination of heart disease and diabetes.  I could tell from listening to him that he wanted to talk to someone about these problems, and he wanted to give advice on how to deal with pain.  I listened to him, and it did make him feel better.

There are three parts to empathy.  The first part, the most important part, is caring about other people.  The second part is reading people, both in their speech and in their body language, to gather clues as to how they feel.  The third part is imagining what the other person is going through.  Putting yourself in the other person’s shoes.

That brings us to Trump.

I don’t honestly believe Trump is capable of empathy, because I don’t believe he’s good at caring about other people.  He cares about himself.  I believe he cares about his kids.  Beyond that, he continuously demonstrates a lack of compassion for other people, both in his actions and in his speech.

The most recent example is his attempt at consoling a grieving widow when her husband was killed in the line of duty.  He left her feeling worse.  It would have been better if he hadn’t called at all.

General Kelly gave an impassioned speech today, defending Trump’s words, but there was little substance to it.  He confirmed that Trump used the words “He knew what he signed up for” while at the same time, providing words that Trump should have used.

Consider the words Trump chose.  Consider who they were being aimed at.  Imagine for just a moment that the love of your life has just died.  How much will those words comfort you?

I think Trump meant them, and I think he was trying to comfort himself.  There’s some part of him that’s still human, that knows that as the Commander in Chief, he has a responsibility to the men and women that serve under him.  “He knew what he signed up for” would probably be very comforting to him.  Not so much for the widow.

Before that, he threw paper towels at people in Puerto Rico.  While they were still reeling from the hurricane, he told them, “You’re throwing our budget out of whack.” When someone in Puerto Rico demonstrated a water treatment pill, he said, “and you drink that?  I could never drink that.”

He’s disconnected.  Demonstrably, horrifically disconnected from other people, and incapable of empathy.

I think it’s worse even than what I’ve painted so far.  He uses the phrase “a lot of people didn’t know” quite a bit, when talking about things that most people know.  I think that whenever he says “a lot of people,” he actually just means himself.  He thinks he’s talking about other people, and he thinks he cares about other people.  So when he cares for himself and says things that would comfort him, he thinks he’s comforting other people.

He says that his tax plan is going to help a lot of people, but it’s really only going to help the top 1%, himself included.  He says that his executive order designed to spike ObamaCare is going to help a lot of people, but really it’s only going to help him say that he fulfilled his campaign promise to repeal and replace, when it did neither of those things and will drive up premiums and hurt 20 million people.

Empathy is important.  It helps us get along with each other.  When we can appreciate what other people are feeling, we can connect with them in ways that are beneficial to everyone.  We can make better deals.  We can mend bridges and work together towards common goals.

How much longer can this country go on with a leader incapable of such an important quality?


Kidney Stone, Right Now

Slight change in plans in what I was going to write about tonight.  A change to both the subject and the venue.  Instead of writing about Trump and Empathy from my writing Starbucks, let’s talk about kidney stones from my garage.

I’ve talked about kidney stones before, but they’ve always been after the fact.  Right now, as I’m writing this, I’ve got some intense pain in my lower back on the right side.  It might not be a kidney stone, but it feels a lot like how all of the others have started.  And over the last 17 years, I’ve become something of a subject matter expert.

Tonight, I’ve taken some precautions.  I’ve contacted Melissa to warn her that I may be having a bad night.  I came home from Starbucks as soon as I knew what was going on.  I drank a bunch of water.  I’ve taken an old Vicodin left over from a previous kidney stone.  I’m staying ahead of the pain.  I’m not nauseous yet.  If the Vicodin is still good, and it takes effect before I get nauseous, I might not have to go to the E.R.

Kidney stones are terrible.  They really, really are.  And like I said, I’ve been through this quite a bit.

How many times have I altered my diet in order to avoid kidney stones?  Too many.  I gave up soda and caffeine.  For a while, I was only drinking water for a beverage, even though water alone made me miserable.

Let’s talk about the pain a little bit, while I’m going through some of it.

It always starts off subtle.  It doesn’t feel like anything more than bad gas at first.  When I arrived at Starbucks tonight, I thought I might have sat in my chair wrong all day.  There was a mild discomfort in my lower back, like a muscle cramp.  I rubbed and stretched while I walked in and placed my order.

When I sat down, the pain ratcheted up a notch.  On the pain scale, it went from a 1 to a 3.  That’s when I started to get a suspicion that it wasn’t a muscle cramp or bad gas.

For me, the worst part about kidney stone pain is its merciless persistence.  It’s never felt like a stab wound or anything so sharp.  It feels more like pressure.  The pressure escalates into a deep, low pain, and then it just sits there.  It doesn’t decrease.  It doesn’t subside, regardless of whatever position you put yourself in.  Walking doesn’t help.  Throwing up doesn’t help.  Eventually, the body starts vomiting because it doesn’t know what else to do.  The cold feel of the bathroom linoleum on your cheek doesn’t help, nor does the cold, smooth surface of the toilet bowl.

If you didn’t get the context clues, I’ve spent a lot of time in bathrooms while trying to deal with kidney stone pain.

The first stone, I didn’t know what was happening, and I fought it for hours.  I resisted the torture.  But eventually I broke and let Melissa take me to the hospital.

The second stone, I recognized it for what it was.  I was at one of my son’s little league games.  I was assistant coach, and I was out near third base.  The pressure turned to pain fast.  So fast, they had to help me off the field.

Tonight’s is the 6th or 7th stone.  It’s hard for me to keep track, now.  It started to hit hard, like the second stone had, but I think I got to the Vicodin in time.  I’m still really uncomfortable, but the pain is at a manageable level.  I don’t think I’ll need to prostrate myself before the toilet.  Unless I’m misjudging what’s going on with my body right now, I think I’ll be okay tonight.

If I’m correct about this being a stone, this may be the second time I’ve gotten to the Vicodin in time.  Most of the rest of the stones came on at very inconvenient times.  One of them hit me while I was driving to work.  I’d just hit rush hour traffic, and the highway was backed up worse than usual, and suddenly the pain was just there.  I had a really hard time driving.  I called ahead to work, and I called Melissa.  By the time I got to work, I was drenched from both sweat and tears.  David took me to the hospital and Melissa met me there.

A few people think that the stone hurts leaving the body.  As in, they think it’s worse for men because of the penis being involved.  The truth is, the urethra is the largest tube involved in the entire urination process.  Once the stone reaches my bladder, I don’t notice it again.  There’s no pain or discomfort from that point forward.

There’s something that happens during and after every kidney stone.  I’m going through it right now.  I keep asking myself, “What could I have done to prevent this?  What did I do wrong?”

In a couple of cases, I might have brought the pain on myself because of my diet.  Being a little dehydrated is bad for people susceptible to kidney stones, and when Cataclysm came out, I spent about three days straight playing World of Warcraft.  I didn’t drink enough during that time.  I’d been having fun at the time, but the kidney stone made it not worth it.

After the second stone, I thought it was because I’d been eating a bunch of shelled peanuts a day or two before.  With the third stone, I’d had a handful of pistachios.  With the first stone, I’d been pounding vitamin C in order to try and muscle my way through flu season.

The truth is, with the exception of the dehydration, there’s probably nothing I could have done differently to avoid these stones.  After the last MRI, my doctor pointed out several stones floating in my kidneys, waiting for their time to shine.  Some people just produce stones.  I’m probably one of those people.

Writing about it right now is helping.  Even after Vicodin, anything a person can do that is a constructive distraction is a good thing.

But unfortunately, I’m running out of things to say on this subject.  I feel bad enough, because I know I’ve talked about kidney stones on this blog before.  Much of what I had to say tonight is a repeat from previous entries, and I hate to repeat myself.

I’m sure I’ll use this experience in a story, eventually.  Maybe I won’t make it specifically a kidney stone, though.  Some kind of abdominal pain that the character has to struggle through, in order to accomplish some kind of task.  Pain like this brings things into clarity for me.  Reminds me of what is important.  I’m sure it would help show the reader the true stuff that makes up one of my characters.  It might be useful.


Writer’s Life and the Role of Music

Most of the writers I know talk about listening to music while they write.  In On Writing, Steven King talked about listening to hard rock while doing a lot of his work.  George Lucas listened to symphonies while writing Star Wars.  My new friend Mark Gelineua listens to music while writing, and at Con-Volution 2017, he spoke about the idea of writers posting their writing playlists.

Maybe I’m strange, but I cannot listen to music and write at the same time.  It just doesn’t work for me.

I think it’s because when I’m reading, I hear the words in my head.  As a teenager, I remember trying to listen to a radio presentation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and I couldn’t get into it.  Marvin’s voice was wrong.  After reading the book, I’d made up my mind how the character was supposed to sound, and the actor’s voice didn’t match up.

I’ve tried writing to different genres of music.  Music without lyrics, like classical and electronica.  Nothing works for me.  If I turn it down low enough, I can find the words.  But at that point I’m not really listening to music.  I’ve just turned on some noise to fill the background.

I can listen to music while programming without a problem.  In fact, one of the ways I’m able to focus at work is to put on something catchy.  Rock, pop, metal… even some rap works.  I put on my headphones, turn up the music, and I write code.  I dance in my chair.  If I’m alone or so deep in my work that I don’t notice that there are others around me, I’ll sing.

While writing, the best sound I can hear is the clackety-clack of my keyboard.  I have a gaming keyboard with mechanical keys, and I find writing with it to be very soothing, especially when I’m on a roll.  But that’s not really music.  The rhythm isn’t steady enough to be a cadence.

I’ve been playing music a little bit longer than I’ve been writing stories.  In spite of that, I consume the respective medias differently.

For example, when I read other people’s stories, I’m unable to fully disengage my writer’s brain.  I see the beats of the story.  I build a scaffolding of the plot and character arcs and make educated predictions as to where everything is going.  I’m rarely surprised by a story anymore, which frustrates me.  I read for escapism, but there is rarely any escape.  I read, hearing the words in my head, noticing the adverbs when overdone.  I trip over the places where the prose falls flat, and I cringe where the writer engages in silly gimmicks or deep, self-indulgences.

When I listen to music, I do not listen so deeply.  I’m able to float off on the waves of harmony and melody.  Sometimes the lyrics inspire stories.  Sometimes I get hooked on a tune so completely that I replay it over and over, feeling a weird sort of guilt every time I hit the back button.  It doesn’t matter the music genre, either.  I have very eclectic tastes.

I don’t listen and analyze music the way I read and critique writing.  I can appreciate good music analysis, though.  Take for example, Andrew Huang’s break down of Find Me by Sigma (featuring Birdy):

He hears the chords and transitions.  He appreciates the music theory and how the song was constructed.  Maybe it’s because I play the sax, incapable of playing chords, but I don’t hear the music the way Andrew Huang hears music.

If I did, would I become dissatisfied, the way I am when reading fiction?

I’m slowly learning to play the guitar.  Maybe I’ll find out the hard way.


A Few Words on Parenting

This is another topic suggested by a friend.  This is another topic I would never have chosen on my own, and there are a lot of different directions I can go.  So, I’ll start from the beginning.  My beginning.

I was an accident.  A teenage girl and a teenage boy had unprotected sex, and later on, I came into the world.  We all know how that works.  But knowing I was an accident had a profound impact on me.  It shaped my feelings about sex and parenting.  Fear of producing an unexpected child kept me celibate even more than my religious beliefs.

You can’t choose your biological parents, but your parents can choose you.  My biological mother wasn’t ever really in my life.  I’ve never met my biological father.  The people I think of as Mom and Dad adopted me, and made sure I felt chosen at an early age.  That is the first lesson in parenting that they gave me: make sure your children feel not just loved, but chosen.

My parents weren’t perfect parents.  I can go into their faults, but that doesn’t seem important right now.  I learned from their mistakes and tried to be a better parent by not copying them.  For example, I wasn’t an alcoholic.  I tried not to hit my kids beyond a certain age.  I made sure never to call my kids names like “idiot” or “stupid.” I tried to make it to all of their school functions.

One of the lessons I learned from my parents about parenting was that I was going to make mistakes, and there wasn’t anything I could do to avoid that.  Kids are more durable than we give them credit for.  We make mistakes, shape our kids in ways we didn’t expect, and then we have to hope for the best.

Parenting is a journey.  We start with babies that need everything, and our role as parent is to do everything for them.  Then our babies turn into kids, then into young adults, and before we know it, they’re grown adults.  We never stop being parents, but our responsibilities shift.  Every step of the way, we have to learn to let go as our children grow and stand on their own.  That’s a tall order for some parents.  None of us want our children to fall and get hurt.

My kids are adults now.  In some ways, they’ve had more life experiences now than I had when I was their age.  In other ways, they’re less worldly.

There are things that we can’t teach our children.  We can try.  We can throw words at them and hope that some get through.  But with subjects like responsibility and ambition, words don’t do enough.  My kids have to learn to be responsible and drive themselves the same way I did.  It doesn’t matter how many opportunities I try to give them.  There are things they won’t learn any other way but the hard way.  That’s been a part of this parenting journey that I’ve really struggled with.

I’m proud of both my children.  Melissa and I made really good people.  The world is a better place because they are in the world.

That’s all I can really say about parenting.  There is no single answer.  The best we can do is love our children, listen to them, and listen to our hearts.  What worked for my kids probably won’t work for someone else’s kids.  We’re all different.  As children, as parents, we’re just fumbling our way forward, trying not to break too many things along the way.


Openness to Change

Are you open to new ideas?  Do you celebrate change, or do you fear it?  Are you willing to sacrifice some of your cultural heritage and history if it means that other people gain greater justice and freedom?

Depending on how you answered those questions, you might be a liberal.

The word “liberal” is a fighting word in many households.  It’s often accompanied with the descriptor “bleeding heart.” Maybe that’s the old way of insulting liberals.  What I usually see now is “libtard.” Or worse, “cuck.”

Looking around the internet, the political definition of liberalism is usually defined as the opposite of conservatism.  That strikes me as strange, since “conservative” these days is so often synonymous with Christian.  The greatest irony of the day is that Jesus Christ, the religious figure at the head of conservatism, is the perfect example of a bleeding heart liberal.

I personally strive to be like Jesus.  I believe in the message of love and forgiveness, and I’m not ashamed or afraid to admit that.  Based on that, do I consider myself a liberal or a conservative?

That’s a tough question for me to answer.  Not because I fear retribution for picking a side, but because there are parts of liberalism and classical conservatism that I agree and identify with strongly.

The whole idea of picking sides and joining the fight bothers me.  I don’t like either extreme.

Are there things about liberalism I don’t like?  Yes.  Once you get far enough into either extreme, things start to get a little bit strange.

One trivial example: food.  Is free range, organic, non-GMO food a conservative or liberal ideal?  If you said liberal, you’ve been paying attention to society.  But if you said conservative, you’ve been reading ahead and know what I’m about to say.

If you look at how organic, non-GMO food is grown, you’re looking at old models of farming and food production.  Holding to traditional methods is part of the definition of being conservative.  Being open to new ideas and technology is supposed to be what it means to be a liberal.  From what I’ve read, there is no real benefit to getting food that is organic, and no real harm eating genetically modified food.  So why is that part of the liberal ideology?

Not all liberals are so picky about food.  And like I said, it’s a trivial matter.  But there are other nuggets floating in the stew that is liberalism that I don’t want to consume.  Fortunately, we can all pick and choose the things that we agree with.  The things that align with our personal code.

I consider myself a moderate that leans left on a lot of issues.  If I was looking at myself from the outside, I would label myself a liberal.  But if that label would interfere with my ability to reach out and talk to people, to listen to them and hear their views and opinions, then I’d rather do without the label.

I think that our country is wounded right now, and I’m not just talking about Trump and the Republicans.  Emotions are running high enough that I fear neither side of the isle is prepared to listen and compromise.  There are a few liberals I follow on Twitter that speak loudly about not forgiving Trump supporters.  That kind of behavior is as bad for the country as anything the right wing has done lately.

We need to unite as a country.  Put the “U” back in USA.  For us to be healthy nation, we need strong liberal voices that are brave enough to look for new ways of achieving our goals.  We need liberals to continue to push progressive ideas, so that those with a smaller voice can still be heard.

Being a patriotic liberal American is about supporting freedom for those that are not strong enough to defend themselves.


Let’s Talk about… Trucks?

This post is specifically for Richard Crawford.  When I asked a few friends for topics I should write about on my blog, Richard cheerfully suggested trucks.  He was looking out the window at the time.  So, without using the word “defenestrate” even once, I’m going to talk about my thoughts on trucks.  My primary focus will be on their usefulness to me as a writer.

As much as it seemed like a joke topic, there’s actually quite a bit we can talk about.  To start with, the “truck” vehicle category is quite broad.  It could describe a small pickup, like the Mitsubishi Mighty Max.  Or it refer to a huge 18 wheeler hauling huge loads down a crowded highway.  All along the truck spectrum, you can find cultural touchstones, from country music and Southern Pride to CB radio lingo.

As a writer, trucks are amazing because of just how many implications come packed inside the concept.  If the writer describes a character as owning a truck, the reader immediately starts imagining tertiary details.  Baseball caps, five o’clock shadow, boots, maybe a denim jacket or plaid shirt.  Without any prompting, there are all of these delicious stereotypes to draw upon.

Quick sidebar… stereotypes have their uses.  We shouldn’t use them when dealing with people in real life.  Applying stereotypes to individuals is the first step in prejudice and objectification.  But stereotypes still exist within the culture, and using them as a shortcut in fiction isn’t explicitly evil.  The writer channels The Dark Side when they perpetuate painful stereotypes.  But like tropes, touching on a stereotype can be useful for setting up the reader’s expectations.  Good writers often take the opportunity to turn those expectations upside down.  For example, the parable of The Good Samaritan was based on the stereotype (at the time) that Samaritans weren’t nice people.

Okay, back to trucks.

When writing The Repossessed Ghost, I described two characters as owning trucks.  The first was a young woman that thought herself to be above others.  I reflected this characteristic in her choice of vehicles.  She thought herself better than others, and in her big shiny truck, she sat higher than everyone else.  She also drove like the rules didn’t apply to her, going over curbs and taking up multiple spaces when parking.  The truck allowed her to get away with this sort of behavior.  I was able to use the truck to convey some aspects of that character’s personality without explicitly stating them.

The second character that owned a truck was a man that pretends to be a psychic, selling his services to celebrities and performing on stage.  With this character, the truck is a part of his mask.  He wears jeans most of the time, but his nails are manicured, and his hair is perfect.  He drives a truck because he wants people to believe he’s down to earth, a man of the people.  A simple man with a gift, which he shares (for a nominal fee) to the people that need him.  There are a lot of lies surrounding this character, but the truck is also a reflection of the truth about him.  Where the first character with a truck in the story drives over curbs and can’t stay in her lane, this guy maneuvers his truck with skill and precision.  Again, it’s a reflection of his character.  He is observant and in control, even when he’s behind the wheel of a tall pickup.

That’s how I used the trucks in my story, and I only scratched the surface of how trucks can be used to convey subtle ideas about character or theme.

Do any of you remember when Senator Ted Stevens talked about the internet saying that it’s “a series of tubes”? It’s been a long time, so I forgive you if you’ve forgotten.  In that same speech, he also said the “Internet is not something you just dump something on.  It’s not a big truck.”

In addition to being somewhat hilarious, Senator Stevens’ words demonstrate what I’ve been talking about.  Trucks are something you can dump stuff on and haul away.  We all accept that description of trucks.  If a writer is crafting a metaphor about getting dumped on, with the expectation that they will carry someone’s burdens, a truck may serve.

Trucks aren’t the only things in our world that carry connotations or hidden meanings.  The exercise I’ve done today with looking at trucks can be applied to lots of things.  What do you assume about a character if I mention that they’re carrying a Starbucks coffee cup in one hand?  What do you think about when I describe a rocking chair, sitting on a porch, its paint faded and flaking?  What comes to mind if I mention a tube of cherry red lipstick, sitting on the edge of a nightstand, or maybe at the bottom of a purse?  We imbue objects with cultural meaning.  As writers, we can tap into those objects and use their ideas, like drawing power from a fresh battery.

Thanks for the topic, Richard.  Talking about trucks has been fun.


Blade Runner 2049 – Fast Review

I enjoyed it.

If you liked the first one, I think you’ll like 2049.

I’m probably going to be thinking about it for a while.

The contents of the movie have me really thinking about what I’ve been putting into Synthetic Dreams and the questions I’ll be playing with.  I have some original ideas, but I’ll definitely be treading on some thematic ideas that have been touched on by movies like this one.

It’s worth seeing in the theater.  It does have some slow parts, but it’s a gorgeous film, and everyone is great in it.

Go watch it.


Writer’s Life and the Role of Lying

Right up front, let me just state that I have no intention to make this a political post.  I want to talk about lying as it relates to my life and writing, and not talk about Trump.  Even though it would be so easy to talk about the Liar in Chief, I want to keep this topic positive and constructive.

Besides, Trump is a terrible liar.  To writers of fiction, you have to be great at lying.

In Steven King’s On Writing, one of the major points he makes is that writers should strive to tell the truth.  What he means is that what we write should ring true, and we shouldn’t be lazy or cowardly.  If in the course of your story your main character would pull the trigger, jump out a window, or set fire to a building, then you must let them shoot, defenestrate, or commit arson.  If they would say “shit!” and not “poop!” then you must let them use profanity.  The idea of truth in this sense is being true to the spirit of the characters and the story.

But unless you’re writing a memoir or non-fiction, your characters aren’t real.  The setting might be based on a real place, but it’s still the land of make believe.  Perhaps the events that transpire in your story are drawn from the memory of real life events.  But as soon as you started putting them on paper, they became fantasy.

The fiction writer is playing make believe.  They’re having wakeful dreams, lucid visions blossoming under the gaze of their mind’s eye.  While having such a fit, they flail at a keyboard or scrape a writing instrument across a page, putting their hallucinations into a permanent form.  Or maybe they go off in the woods and talk to themselves, recording their ramblings until they can be transposed later.

I can dress it up a hundred different ways, but the truth is that the writer is engaged in artful lying.  If they’re really good, their lies will transport the reader to a completely different place, with characters that never existed, except in the shared story between creator and consumer.

Who cares, though, right?  What difference does it make?

I care.  To me, it’s more than just semantics.  I believe that the world is pushed and pulled by the words of writers, and there is value in being aware of what’s going on.

Whether it is a book, a movie, a political speech, or an advertisement, there are writers involved, crafting messages that will sell something.  Usually they’re selling an idea.  Almost always, that idea is a work of fiction.  Perhaps it’s just a small lie, but even an embellishment is still a deviation of the truth.

Our culture is saturated with lies.  Marketing.  Politics.  If I were feeling particularly blasphemous, I might throw in Religion.  Behind all of it, there are writers making the lies as believable as possible.

So how does the writer do it?  How do writers deceive the whole world in all of these different areas?

Sometimes it starts with a grain of truth.  You draw on a memory that is related to the fiction and focus on the details.  Maybe you’ve known someone like the character you’re trying to create.  Maybe the setting is reminiscent of some place you liked to play as a child.  Often, a simple truth can be the snowflake that starts rolling down the hill, growing as it moves, gathering all of the special lies that stick to it until in the end, it is unrecognizable from how it began.

Whether the writer starts with a truth or not, they have to commit.  They have to see the vision and believe it.  The writer is the first person that must be fooled by the lie.  If they do not believe it, no one else will.

Like other forms of lying, the writer’s tale can come apart in the details.  It’s important for the writer to keep track of those details that the reader will latch onto and pick at.  If you present a character as being left handed and bald as an egg shell, then they better stay left handed and hairless unless you have a reason for the change.  Inconsistencies give the game away.

Like a stage magician, the writer may have to use obfuscation or distraction to keep the reader from digging at details you’re unprepared for.  If you’re building a space station in your story that relies on centrifugal force for gravity, you either need to do the math and figure it all out in advance, or you need to have an airlock explode as soon as one of the characters start to ask how it all works.

A good writer is a great liar.  Without that skill, who would believe that a race of short, furry footed people would trek across a barren land to throw a magical ring into a pit of fire?  Who would believe that a farm boy from a desert planet would turn out to be the offspring of the Empire’s chief mass murderer, and that they would face off with swords made of plasma?  Without the art of the lie, the stories we embrace fall apart.