Paeans to Teachers, Mothers, and Ancient Civlizations

Mike Simpson, chief editor of Second Wind Publishing, posted a blog today about the heroism of the teachers of Moore Oklahoma using their bodies in an effort to protect their students from the wrath of nature, and teachers of Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, trying to shield their students from a gunman. He says, “Can you imagine such fierce love, such a totally unreserved willingness to perish for the children they taught? Servicemen and women go to combat knowing that they may be killed or desperately wounded. In the face of that, our nation recognizes their courage and lauds them with high honors—rightly so. Yet when a teacher goes into a classroom intending to impart a daily dose of education to a group of children and ends up putting herself or himself in the path of death for the sake of those kids, I ask myself: is there any individual anywhere who should be more highly honored? In moments of crisis and tragedy, our truest selves emerge. And if we ever wanted to know the “stuff” of which the teachers of Moore and Newtown are made, we found out with perfect clarity.”

“Where the Wind Comes Whistling Down the Plains, Teacher” by Mike Simpson is a blog post worth reading.

While you’re at the Second Wind blog, check out Mother’s Day 2013 by J. Conrad Guest and A Day in Turkey with the Hittites by Mickey Hoffman. Mickey’s travelogues are among the best I have seen/read, making me feel as if I were in these exotic places with her.

And, what the heck, while you’re there, you might as well also check out What is Your Character’s Favorite Color? — by Pat Bertram. It’s an older post, doesn’t really fit in with the theme of this article of paeans, but it is a perennial favorite of the Second Wind blog readers, so that’s sort of a paean.

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

Giving Readers a Stake in Your Story

jockeyI don’t like stories about gambling. They set my teeth on edge because of the inevitable slough of despair the character falls into when the addiction gets the better of him. Despite that, Let It Ride is one of my favorite movies, probably because although the story takes place as Hialeah amid the horse racing culture, it is not a movie about gambling. It’s the story of how the forces of the universe align to give Jay Trotter (Richard Dreyfuss) one perfect day, and how he had the courage to accept the gift.

My favorite lines are when Pam (Teri Garr) says, “I don’t know why people have to gamble. Why can’t they just watch the horses run?” Trotter responds, “Without gambling, there is no horse racing.”

I’m with Pam — someday I’d like to go to a racecourse and watch the horses run, but I can also see why there is no horseracing without gambling. First, there would be no income, and second, no one but those directly involved — racecourse owners, horse owners, trainers, and jockeys — would have any stake in the matter. Gambling gives anyone who has the price of a bet a stake in the outcome of the race.

This is similar to writing — if an author doesn’t give readers a stake in the outcome of the story, then there is no reason for anyone to read the book. Since there is no gamble when it comes to a book (well, except for the gamble of whether the reader will enjoy it or whether they will feel cheated for having wasted the money) the stake has to be an emotional one. For example, Kendra, the main character in Mickey Hoffman’s mystery, School of Lies, is a special education teacher in an inner city school. The book’s true-to-life atmosphere is appealing to anyone who enjoys mystery and mayhem, but it’s especially appealing to special education teachers. Special education teachers — or any teacher — who have been in similar schools and situations perhaps wish they could have said the same things or done the same things Kendra did, which gives them a stake in the outcome of her dilemma. Of course, anyone who ever went to high school would also have a stake in the story, if for no other reason than to see the truth of what they suspected — that much intrigue was going on behind the scenes.

For this same reason, a popular main character in many books is a mother juggling home life and career, which immediately gives a large section of the population a stake in the story. You see the same thing dozens of times a day in your sidebar ads — “mother in (the name of your city, which supposedly gives you an added stake in the matter) gets skinny”; “mother discovers secret to youthful skin”; “mother earns a fortune working at home.”

Your choice of characters and their predicament are not the only ways to give readers a stake in the outcome of your story. You can make readers a part of the story by giving your characters characteristics that people can identify. You make readers involved by stirring up their emotions. You show them what is happening instead of explaining every detail, and let their own reactions to the action become part of the story.

Giving people a stake in your story is not exactly the same thing as getting them to bet a bit of cash on a horse race, but getting them to pony up a bit of emotion while reading your story will give them greater winnings in the long run.

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

Come See My Etchings!

I couldn’t resist using the old come-on line for the title of this article, but etchings I’m referring to aren’t my etchings. They are the work of Mickey Hoffman, a talented artist and author. (She wrote the mysteries School of Lies and Deadly Traffic, published by Second Wind Publishing.) The first etching is one Mickey did of Beijing, and the second is Myanmar.

If you’d like to see how involved the etching process is, check out Mickey’s blog, What the heck is an etching? She shows step-by-step what exactly goes into the making of her etchings.

If you are more interested in travel than in how to make an etching, here are a few of Mickey’s wonderful travel blogs:

Up and Down, More from Tibet

Myanmar: Bagan, a City for Dreamers

The Islands and the Death Railway

And while you’re at it, don’t forget to check out Mickey’s books:

SCHOOL OF LIES: by Mickey Hoffman is a funny mystery novel about a dysfunctional public school. http://tinyurl.com/783sq7r

DEADLY TRAFFIC: The local sex trade flourishes and girls are disappearing from Standard High http://tinyurl.com/83crtzh

Genre vs. Traditional Fiction

Yesterday I wrote about traditional stories, the kind of untagged, unlabeled, uncategorized and ungenrefied fiction we grew up on. There used to be certain sections for genres in libraries and bookstores, but most books were shelved alphabetically under “fiction.” I read all types of books without discrimination, but I found the most satisfying books not with the genre stories, but in with the general fiction. And that’s the kind of book I tried to write.

I don’t know why genre became the core of the book business rather than the peripheral it once was, but it’s probably because of marketing — as one editor who rejected Light Bringer told me, “I loved the story, and your writing is excellent, but I don’t know how to sell it. It doesn’t have enough science fiction elements to be science fiction, and it has too much science fiction to be anything else.” (The truth is, Light Bringer was never meant to be science fiction. It a traditional story based on both modern conspiracy theory and the Sumerian cosmology, though I admit, it does have elements that are construed as science fiction. Luckily, I eventually found a publisher who publishes traditional fiction as well as genre.)

I don’t know what came first — readers’ need to buy books that fit into certain categories or book marketers’ need to funnel readers into those categories, but it doesn’t really matter. Either way, this genreization of the book business makes me an outsider, both as a reader and a writer. I have a hard time sorting through the 130,000,000 million books available to find ones I want to read, and I have a hard time fitting my books into the available genres. (When I have to give a category, I say “conspiracy fiction.” That’s not a genre, or at least I don’t think it is, but it gives me a pithy and realistic way of labeling my books.)

The hardest of my books to categorize, besides Light Bringer, is More Deaths Than One. It has many of the elements of a thriller, but the story is not about what happened to the main character (Bob) but who is he and how he reacts to what happened to him. In a thriller, there should be some sort of showdown between the hero and villain, but in More Deaths Than One, that showdown is given to an offscreen character, and Bob hears of it second hand. Some readers think the scene is a cheat. Even I think it’s a cheat, or rather I would think so if More Deaths Than One was a thriller. The hero should always be the one who performs the decisive action in the story, but in this case, the decisive action is not the discovery of the truth, but how Bob and Kerry (the woman he loves) deal with that truth.

I could have had the showdown and then Bob and Kerry’s scene afterward, but then their scene becomes anti-climactic. I could have had the two scenes concurrent — the showdown and their reactions, but there is no way Bob would have opened up to her with a dangerous creature in the room. And most of all, he would never have brought her to the attention of the villain since he would have wanted to protect her at all costs.

You’d think that with the emphasis on the two characters that More Deaths Than One is romantic suspense, but it is far more than that (and far less. Those who have read it for romantic suspense don’t like it because the romance isn’t forefront. Nor is the conflict a romantic one — Bob and Kerry get along from the beginning). More Deaths Than One is traditional fiction — a story that demanded to be written in a certain way, regardless of any genre conventions.

As Mickey Hoffman, author of School of Lies and Deadly Traffic, said, “What are you waiting for? Read this book. Now. More Deaths Than One is much better than any ‘bestseller’ out there. The plot is constantly surprising and intricate, the characters draw you into the tale and the overall writing is top notch.”

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

What inspires you to write a particular story?

Like most writers, I’ve written the beginnings of a few books that have gone nowhere. I have zero interest in pursuing them. On the other hand, for various reasons, the books I did write took hold of my imagination and didn’t let go until they were completed. For example, A Spark of Heavenly Fire came about because of a Washington Irving quote: “There is in every true woman’s heart a spark of heavenly fire, which lies dormant in the broad daylight of prosperity, but which kindles up, and beams and blazes in the dark hour of adversity.” I loved the idea of a woman who felt half-dead when everyone else was doing well, but in a time of dying, she came to life. Since I didn’t want to do a war story, I created a plague — the red death. I had fun with that, and the story so captured my imagination that I had no choice but to pursue it.

Here are a few inspirations other authors. The comments are taken from interviews posted at Pat Bertram Introduces . . .

I was inspired to write Disco Evil because I believe everyone deserves a fair go and that people who go out of their way to be nasty to others really do build up bad karma for themselves. I happen to like quest/adventures stories so that’s how Ghost Dance came about. Two of the women in Ghost Dance are based on certain stand up and be counted sort of ladies I know and love in real life.

From an interview of Malcolm R. Campbell, Author of “Sarabande”

“The Sun Singer” is about a young man’s solar journey. I wanted to look at the other side of the coin, so to speak, and write about the lunar-oriented ordeals of a young woman. Sarabande, my protagonist first appeared in “The Sun Singer.” However, I have written her story so that it can be read as a standalone novel, a woman’s story that could be whole in and of itself.

From an interview of J J Dare, Author of False Positive and False World

I was inspired to write about hidden government agendas and their devastating aftereffects when I thought about why we, as a nation, involve our resources in other nations’ conflicts. My biggest inspiration: the eternal, What if?

From an interview of Joylene Nowell Butler, Author of “Broken but not Dead”

Honestly, one day it occurred to me that there weren’t enough stories about fantastic 50-year-old women. I wasn’t quite 50, but decided that while it might be nice to be young and beautiful like Cheryl Ladd and all those other famous ladies from my era, there’s nothing quite like the wisdom and empowerment that comes with age.

I was inspired to write the book after reading some nonfiction books about contemporary domestic slavery and human trafficking.

From an interview of Sheila Deeth, Author of “Flower Child”

Actually it was a writing competition at our local writing group. The prompt was to write a short piece inspired by music, and I had John Denver’s Rhymes and Reasons spinning around in my head — For the children and the flowers / Are my sisters and my brothers… I found myself putting a childhood misunderstanding together with my adult experience.

If you’re a writer, what inspired you to write a particular story? If you’re a reader, what inspires you to read a particular story?

Who Gets to Define What is Art?

I’ve been discussing the wild new frontier of the book business here on this blog, and it turns out the question of what qualifies as a book nowadays is not an isolated conundrum. The music business is going through the same upheaval.

When Lady GaGa’s debut album was released, Amazon sold 400,000 copies of “Born this Way” at 99 cents each as a promotion for their online storage service, and now Billboard has decided those weren’t really album sales, and so they don’t count. What qualifies as an album sale now anyway? It used to be a physical product, first a record album, then a tape, then a CD and now there are digital streaming services, iTunes, Utube, and other possibilities I’m not even aware of. (Turns out I’m not aware of a lot when it comes to music today. Haven’t a clue who Lady GaGa is.)

What seems to be really going on in the creative world today, whether writing, music, painting, is not just about new forms of distribution, but a matter of who gets to define what is art.

I never cared who authors were (except as a means of finding similar stories), why they wrote what they did, or if the books had any meaning other than that which I brought to them. I used to enjoy reading so much more when I saw books as something separate from the author, something that existed in its own right. Then the publishers started putting the author’s name above the title, the author became more important than the work, and books were demoted from art to commodity.

Or perhaps books were always a commodity. The point I am trying to make is that I somehow got the impression there was a great god out there, someone above us mere mortals, judging which books, which paintings, which music pieces were art and which were not. When control of one’s creative output was in the hands of publishers and producers, with professional reviewers handing out their opinions as if they were writ in stone, there was a narrow range of creativity that fell under the heading of ART. Now, anyone can publish, anyone can produce, anyone can review. So who is to say what is art?

Some of the books that have won prestigious awards are so appallingly awful I couldn’t get through them without gagging. Some artworks that command huge prices I wouldn’t even hang in a dark closet. Yet someone, somewhere, decided these things were art. (I wonder at times if they are perpetrating a joke on us, and they know the stuff is bad but want to see how many people they can talk into believing it is good.)

In her blog post “Why is That There?”, Mickey Hoffman, author of School of Lies and Deadly Traffic asks, “Is it necessary for someone to read books about a writer’s life to enjoy or understand their work? Will a biography or an art historian’s research actually tell you how a creative person thought and felt? . . . Do I really have to explain? Can’t you get whatever meaning you wish to get and be content? Either you like it or you don’t.”

And maybe, that’s the truth of it. Maybe there is no standard, no judgment from on high, and the question of whether something is ART comes down to us mere mortals and whether we like it or not.

Brag Time!

I know I said my time for self-promotion is past, but I didn’t say I wouldn’t brag, and wow, is this something to brag about! I just saw a review on Goodreads.com for More Deaths Than One, and either Mickey Hoffman’s resolution for the New Year is to be kind to other authors, or she really liked the book. I’m going with the second option. Thank you, Mickey! I hope everyone reads the review. It’s the sort of review we all dream about and seldom see.

What are you waiting for? Read this book. Now. “More Deaths” is much better than any “bestseller” out there. The plot is constantly surprising and intricate, the characters draw you into the tale and the overall writing is top notch.” –Mickey Hoffman, author of School of Lies.

You can read the first chapter of More Deaths Than One by clicking on the More Deaths Than One tab at the top of this blog. You can also download the first thirty percent of More Deaths Than One free from Smashwords. Hmmm. Do you think I mentioned the title enough?

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