Thursday, January 30, 2014

Five essential elements of a successful novel plot

Cover of the eBook version of my life-work novel 'Eden's Womb', which consists of 650,000 words divided into seven 'books'.

Want to write a novel? There’s a very simple formula for a successful one. It has five essential plot elements. Give your readers a hero with a compelling personality and a desperate goal.  Confront him/her with insurmountable odds.  Don't love your hero so much that you can't bear to let him/her suffer - it's best to make achievement of the goal nearly impossible.  Make the consequences of failure unthinkable but the path to success daunting and full of unexpected obstacles.  Let the success be achieved at a heavy price, almost too much to bear.  And give your reader twists to the plot without disrespecting them or the integrity of your characters.  The final denouement ought to include surprises.

The basic formula for everything from a novel down to a bit of flash fiction, in a single sentence, looks like this:

"When <1. our hero> experiences <2. stimulus> they must < 3. overcome problem> in order to achieve <4. desired goal> or <5. face consequences>."

Here's how this formula translates into specifics for my seven-volume novel series entitled ‘Eden's Womb’ (which you can read right here on this blog or purchase on Amazon):

“When <1. the reluctant clairvoyant Adam Timberfell> encounters <2. the Strongmother Naja, mother of the universe>, she < 3. launches him on an epic quest> to <4. fulfill her mysterious obsession and to rescue humanity and the universe itself> from <5. imminent extinction.>”

 A novel as long and complex as 'Eden's Womb' can interweave several such story lines.  Each character can have their own distinctive one.  Here's the over-arching one for most of the human characters:

... ... "When <1. Human kind> faces an array of <2. Hostile post-human species> they must < 3. Find and raise up their Last Messiah> in order to <4. Fulfill End-Time prophecy of immortality in a New Heaven and New Earth> or <5. Face annihilation, utter extinction, and the eternal wrath of the Strongmother Naja>."

I think it's a minimum requirement for an 'interesting' character (as opposed to a cardboard-cut-out of one) to have this sort of story-arc underlying their lives.  After all, don't we all, here in this nasty, confusing real world?

Monday, January 27, 2014

Review of The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd

The Invention of WingsThe Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

At age four, Sarah Grimké, daughter of a Charleston, South Carolina aristocrat, inadvertently witnesses the brutal flogging of one of the family slaves. The trauma of that experience never leaves her.

At age eleven she is gifted a slave of her own, Hetty 'Handful,' to be her handmaiden.

Where the story goes from there really should not be any surprise, and it isn't. But the telling is nonetheless a tour de force.

The Invention of Wings is written in the first person with chapters alternating between the points of view of Handful and Sarah.

Handful is a slight, plucky third generation slave descended from the Fon people from the kingdom of Dahomey (now eastern Benin and a bit of far southwestern Nigeria). The Kings of Dahomey derived most of their income by selling slaves to European interests, contributing as much as 20% of the Atlantic slave trade. Handful is a fictional adaptation of a real slave who was given to the real Sarah Grimké but appears to have died in her teens. In the book, Hetty lives a long life filled with all the horrors and injustices of a slave's existence. Kidd portrays her with sensitivity and realism. We share her travail and her unending yearning for a better life - for freedom.

Sarah is a rather plain middle child in a huge family (eighth of fourteen children). As Handful expressly states in the book, Sarah is as psychologically fettered by her station in life as Handful is physically fettered. Sarah struggles with denial of her ambition to make a real impact on human affairs. As a child she hoped to be the first woman lawyer. As life tramples her down, she lowers her expectations, simply aspires to avoid becoming a spinster, and even fails at that. The novel remains true to most of the historical facts of her life.

It is interesting that Kidd chose not to bring Sarah's younger sister Angelina into the fold of the first-person narrative. In her after-note Kidd explains that she felt a stronger identification with Sarah, even though Angelina was the more vocal and outspoken of the two. More importantly, I think, Sarah's life more easily translates into compelling fiction. She was more reserved, often deeply conflicted - a much more complex personality. And (from the writer's standpoint) her fictional relationship with Handful falls into place more readily.

In addition to the sledge-hammer issue of human slavery, Kidd explores more subtle issues that still trouble humanity today: female oppression and racial parity. It is a telling commentary on early 19th century liberalism that the Quakers expelled Sarah for her radical views--as much because she was a woman as because she was a woman advocating immediate and complete abolition.

The book was hard to put down. The writing style is brilliant without being ostentatious. The character development and dialogue are sterling. The plot works, though there are a few scenes where a little more imagination could have improved the realism. The story of both characters is one of helplessness in a merciless white male dominated world. Yet in the end it's a story of triumph. The ending is satisfying - perhaps moreso than that of their real world counterparts. The book ends in 1838, which happens to be the end of the real-world Grimké sisters' public speaking tour. Both of them abruptly 'shut up'. Though they remained active behind the scenes through the rest of their long lives, never again did they take center stage. Courage and conviction can only take you so far. I suspect that the sisters were simply unable to sustain their energy level in the face of the overwhelming and vocal opposition. They were just too far ahead of their time.

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Thursday, January 23, 2014

So you want to be a writer

Fifth or sixth grade exercise, late 1950's. It was more about the mechanics of outlining.  But the words were prophetic.

"Out of the mouths of babes."  If you want to be a writer, don't quit your day job.

I was barely out of the womb - nine or ten years old - when I knew that I wanted to write.  And very little has changed since.  Even at that tender age I knew that the writing life was one of sacrifice and deprivation.  So I covered my bases by choosing a more lucrative profession - that of my father - even though I was only 'a little good' in math and handicapped by my aversion to public speaking.

Fifty five years later I cannot express my personality more eloquently.  I can retract not a single word of this.  I never excelled at math.  I succeeded in science by my wit and cunning, and by my ability to defend my science against hostile reviewers with my skills with the written word.

My craving was always to write.  In the final analysis I did both.  During my NASA career I combined science with prose and managed to publish dozens of peer reviewed articles in Internationally recognized Scientific Journals. In retirement I became a Science Fiction writer, applying my extensive science knowledge and embellishing it with the Fantasy and Mysticism that was flowering in my blood.

The writing life has great allure for the younger generation, as it had for me back in the late '50's.  There are no overt barriers.  If you can type, if you are literate and overflowing with ideas, then you have a chance to become famous.  The profession is open to anyone who wants to give it a try.  But to those of you who propose to be writers, this is not necessarily good news.  It means that the competition is fierce.  You're up against every other 'wannabe.' You better get a day job. There are perhaps a few dozen Sci-Fi/Fantasy writers who can eek a comfortable living at this profession.

I have a government pension on which I can depend.  So I am free to roam the wild realms of imagination and wrap my tale in rich layers of narrative.  My 'world building' has transcended decades.  I aspire to attract readers to my tale, not to make money, but to introduce them to this Fantasy world's truth and beauty, and its relevance to our living world.  I agonize over the quality of my prose because I know my readers have more choices than they have ever had before.  I strive to stand above the crowd.  'Eden's Womb' is an epic fantasy with strong elements of solid Science Fiction.  Best of all, it's a rousing adventure/quest story - an odyssey.  I try to devote careful attention to character development, to character-arc, and to vibrant dialogue.  Give it a read.  I don't think you'll not regret it.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Review of 'Walking with Spring' memoir of the first AT thru-hike

Walking with SpringWalking with Spring by Earl V. Shaffer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm an old guy - Social Security retirement age. Yet Earl Shaffer accomplished what he called his 'Long Cruise' - the very first Appalachian Trail thru-hike - before I was born (but barely - I happened to be a fetus at the time). The year was 1948.

When you're the very first to do something there's a wall of uncertainty surrounding the endeavor that is hard to comprehend. The conventional wisdom among those involved with and knowledgeable about the Appalachian Trail at that time was that what Earl did was impossible. In fact many people refused to believe he had done it until he convinced them via personal interviews, during which he was grilled for trail details that only a hiker would know, and via testimonials of many 'witnesses' he had met along the way.

Earl and a friend had been making plans to hike the entire AT as far back as the 1930's, soon after the whole thing was finished. They lived not far from the trail in York, PA and they had gone on many backpacking trips along the trail near home. But then World War II came along. Earl found himself in combat in the South Pacific, and when he got back home he found the experiences hard to shake off. Worse, his friend did not return.

In the past few years there has been a burgeoning Veteran support group known as "Warrior Hike" that advocates that returning veterans 'Hike off the War' by doing an AT thru-hike. The participants find it very therapeutic--a good way to ease back into civilian life. Earl Shaffer was undoubtedly the first Warrior Hiker. It seems to me that he quietly dedicated his hike to his friend, and I believe this helped steel his resolve to finish, despite having to find his way through sections that had been neglected and unmaintained through the war, others that had been clear cut by loggers, and still others that had been rerouted without adequate marking. There was the 'Missing Link' between the Green Mountains of VT and New Hampshire's White Mountains where the trail barely existed at all.

Some of the early trail's shortcomings probably motivated Earl to want to help make the experience for other hikers better. After his hike, Earl went on to have a long distinguished career of service for the Trail. He knew most of the true legends, including Myron Avery and Benton MacKaye, to whom he dedicated his book. And it's a testimony to him that the publisher who opted to sign him was none other than the Apppalachian Trail Conference itself (now called the Appalachian Trail Conservancy).

Earl didn't write his book right away. It was first published privately in 1981, then picked up by ATC and made public in 1983. But during the 'Lone Expedition' as he also called it, he maintained a diary, and words from his 'Little Black Notebook' make frequent appearances in the final text.

Earl's writing style is down-to-earth, almost quaint in its old-fashioned simplicity, yet it rises to a standard of elegance and sophistication that many more recent trail memoirs are not able to match. Earl is a keen observer with a love for the history of the land, and he's a marvelous pastoral poet. The book is filled with well written verse and with descriptions of the country through which he was traveling. He describes elements of the human history of the land that I had not heard before despite my extensive reading about the trail. He covers the history of the inhabitants from pre-Columbian days, through early settlement, the civil war, to the then modern but now historic encounters with an amiable mountain man tilling his field with two mules and a walk-behind plow, a ride in a Model-A driven by a non-English-speaking Pennsylvania Dutch farmer, and Park Rangers who personally kept tabs on his progress and radioed the news north to their colleagues. His hike was a historic event, yet Earl's humble telling makes it feel personal and real. I especially delighted in his descriptions of places that I personally passed on my thru-hike in 2012--still there, still on the trail route after sixty four years.

As AT hiking memoirs go, this is one of the good ones--a must read.

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Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Feminism and the Paradox of Free Will

Sue Monk Kidd, advocate of 'Contemplative Spirituality' for 25 years.

We humans do selfish things (we 'sin'), and as a result we suffer and cause others to suffer. Fortunately we have free will to choose a better path and to fix things (find 'salvation').

Conservative Christians - those who believe that the Bible is infallible, inerrant, and all-sufficient - offer a very clear path to 'salvation'.  If you do what the Bible says (accept, surrender to, and profess the 'Message of the Cross' - a courageous act of absolution by proxy), then you will stop suffering and know the 'joy of God's love'.

There is a compelling clarity in this message, and I've seen it in action.  People who are horribly suffering, feeling hopeless and lost, hear this message and are transformed.  Their relief and release is immediate and real.  I've seen that 'joy of God's love' in their eyes, and it's contagious. Their excitement for this spiritual remedy attracts others, and so the message has proliferated lo these past 2000 years.  Hard to argue with the results.

So why would a true-believing 30-something southern Baptist Sunday School Teacher choose to reject Christianity and become a feminist and new-age spiritualist?

And why am I even bringing this up?

Well, that 30-something former southern Baptist was Sue Monk Kidd, and her life story resonates with me.  She's my age, we were born just weeks apart.  And she's gone through a significant spiritual arc, reaching a position near me from the polar opposite end of the spectrum.

Perhaps more to the point of why I bring this up now: She just released a new novel yesterday, 'The Invention of Wings'.  I ordered it today.

Sue's first novel, 'The Secret Life of Bees' was on the New York Times Bestseller list for 2 1/2 years and was made into a motion picture which just happens to be showing on BET tonight at 9PM eastern.  'The Invention of Wings' has been chosen by Oprah Winfrey as the latest novel for her Book Club 2.0, so it's bound to be a best seller too.

In the process of deciding to order this book I did a lot of reading and research about Sue, and I ran into some not-so-complimentary diatribes against her by a small vocal minority within the Conservative Christian community.

Why have these groups picked on her?  Before turning to novel writing, Sue was a regular contributor to the spiritual/inspirational publication 'Guideposts' and she wrote several book-length memoirs discussing her spiritual transformation.  Most notable of these was 'The Dance of the Dissident Daughter'.  I'll let the book review by Amazon Vine Voice 'Kelly (Fantasy Literature)' take it from here:

"Sue Monk Kidd spent approximately her first forty years in the Baptist church, where women are exhorted to submit to their husbands and where she heard the phrase "second in creation, first to sin" countless times. She was disgruntled with the church's stance on women, but never felt moved to rock the boat much, until one day she walked into her daughter's work and found two customers sexually harassing the girl. Something snapped inside her, and she began to question her religion's assumptions about gender and to seek a more feminist spirituality. Her journey took her to ancient mythology, the Gnostic gospels, and to dark places in her own life as her quest caused trouble in her marriage and her religious life. She tells us how she got through her troubles, and her story seems very human and touching. She would feel uneasy, drop the whole subject for months, but her longing always resurfaced. And in the end, she seems to have found peace, and some interesting insights. This book will be interesting to Christian women trying to figure out how to reconcile religion with self-respect. It was also interesting to me, as a pagan of several years and an agnostic before that--it helped me see value in Christianity that I had not seen before."
Sue herself wrote this:
"The minister was preaching. He was holding up a Bible. It was open, perched atop his raised hand as if a blackbird had landed there. He was saying that the Bible was the sole and ultimate authority of the Christian’s life. The sole and ultimate authority.
"I remember a feeling rising up from a place about two inches below my navel. It was a passionate, determined feeling, and it spread out from the core of me like a current so that my skin vibrated with it. If feelings could be translated into English, this feeling would have roughly been the word no!
"It was the purest inner knowing I had experienced, and it was shouting in me no, no, no! The ultimate authority of my life is not the Bible; it is not confined between the covers of a book. It is not something written by men and frozen in time. It is not from a source outside myself. My ultimate authority is the divine voice in my own soul."

Bottom line: Sue was suffering, but the Christian 'narrow gate' to salvation (Matthew 7: 13,14) seemed closed to her.

So what do you do when the simple formulaic road to salvation leads you only to more suffering?  Your first reaction is to rebel.  Thus Sue became a feminist.  Christianity in its liberal forms supports feminism, but Sue's pendulum was still swinging. Her free will took her down less traveled roads.  She found Goddess-consciousness.  She felt the Earth breathing.  The Universe had a beating heart.  And she sensed those immense forces welling within her.  The "pure inner knowing" that Sue talks about is the path called 'Contemplative Spirituality,' and it is a path that the vocal minority of Conservatives that I mentioned above call 'dangerous'.

Given the history that Christianity is obligated to own, I wonder which path is actually more dangerous when abused.  But that's a complex discussion for another time and place.

Free will is a tricky thing. Some day I might get technical with you and write about Newcomb's Paradox. But for now I'll just say that if there is any response from the universe to our presence, then what we choose to do *really* matters.  The seminal example is the Biblical God's experiment: granting Adam and Eve free will.  It was a bold sacrifice, but it breathed real life into the universe.  God only became relevant when he gave up his ability to predict what humans would do (this is the heart of the 'free will paradox').  The arc of the relationship  between God and Man became the ultimate epic quest.  God groped for the best way to guide men toward his hoped-for result, and humans grew in knowledge and wisdom as they stumbled forward toward the same ends.  God's first attempts at persuasion were pretty crude and man's early behavior was pretty stenchy, including the abusive domination of the physically stronger male over the spiritually more centered female.  Result: a lot of people got hurt.  Think Sodom and Gomorrah or Noah's flood.  But God kept trying, for he 'so loved the world.' Finally he gave men Jesus.  I could go on.

The point: when you exercise free will more fully than many conservative Christians are prepared to do (as their God initially was), you can indeed stray and stumble and suffer, but you can also achieve exactly the same level of rewards that the Bible promises without all the baggage and dogma.

By abandoning the well-traveled road, Sue Monk Kidd chose uncertainty.  She spent years establishing her new course.  Salvation down this path is more subtle, takes more work, and so is not quite as overtly alluring.  The 'Joy of Universal Love' is definitely there, but it's quieter and more introspective.

So why am I bringing this up?  Because I've followed similar paths.  For me salvation is more about the Joy of discovery of mankind's emergent purpose than my own, and of helping to chart the course toward that purpose.  I've imagined where this path might ultimately lead in my fictional distant future epic fantasy 'Eden's Womb'.  These descendants of Homo sapiens have accomplished a 'Long Sojourn into Harmony and Balance,' bringing them into concert with the planet's ecosystems. For them the 'narrow gate' is replaced with what they call the 'Noble Course.'  And for them salvation is not ultimately for the individual.  Such a selfish pursuit is more likely to result in false steps and more suffering.  The salvation that is most worth seeking is for humanity as a whole.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Book Review: A House Near Luccoli, by D.M. Denton

A House Near LuccoliA House Near Luccoli by D.M. Denton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

D.M. Denton is an artist, and 'A House Near Luccoli' is more musical composition than historical novel. Which befits her subject - the last years of lesser known Baroque Italian composer Alessandro Stradella as experienced by the protagonist 35-year-old 'spinster' Donatella. Donatella is an unlikely foil for the flamboyant Stradella. She expects no interaction with the new tenant, as he moves into the boarding house where she lives. She considers him beyond reach - as we might a movie star on the screen - there, but not to be touched. But with the encouragement of her aging Grandmother, once an accomplished singer, Donatella begins to come under the maestro's spell.

A little about Denton's highly distinctive writing style: each sentence is a crafted thoughtscape - often elegant and poetic, rich with visual detail and emotional nuance. As a composer of music-through-prose, I'd judge her style more evocative of Debussy than any of the great Baroque masters. One of her favorite devices is to exploit paradox, as in 'she was happy and sad.' Within the infinite directions of a thoughtscape, these are meant to point out pathways. The reader does the walking. Here's an example - a sentence describing Donatella's church:

"Santa Maria Maddalena displayed a nativity in front of its main altar, still-life figures in satiny marble, the holy family ignoring those who arrived to bow and marvel, offer gifts already given, and point to unseen stars, donkey and sheep neither tethered nor free." (p.148)

It felt like a slow start to me, but before I was halfway through the book I found it hard to put down. And now that I'm finished I find myself going back to it. There is so much wealth here that I could read it again and find new paths and a fresh breeze.

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