Tuesday, February 28, 2012

How Do You Know If You've Written A Classic

Last November, while I was sending out the contracts for the stories in my upcoming Vampire anthology (Vampire's Dilemma edited by Jacqueline Lichtenberg and Jean Lorrah, but none of the 10 stories are by us), an email dropped into my box from a Sime~Gen fan and it blew my mind.  It's from a fellow who is a writer, as well as a reader.  That gives it much more significance in my mind. 

This Sime~Gen reader found the new 2011 Sime~Gen novels at the Darkover Grand Council meeting in Maryland where Karen MacLeod had brought a box of the books to sell. 

Karen posted the following in the SIMEGEN Group on Facebook:
Interesting comments about the new Sime~Gen books I was selling for Jacqueline and Jean at Darkover Grand Council.
(1) There ARE NO NEW Sime~Gen Books. The series stopped years ago.
(2) After showing people the books: "Those are NOT Sime~Gen books."
(3) I'm SO GLAD to see new Sime~Gen books at last. I hope there will be more of them.
ALL of the books Jean and Wildside provided me were SOLD very quickly. I should have had more of them.

The Darkover Grand Council meeting (a science fiction con) was started by Darkover fans to focus on the Darkover novels of Marion Zimmer Bradley who was Guest of Honor at the first one.  I was fan Guest of Honor and had won the contest to name the convention.  At that time I headed a Darkover fan group called Keeper's Tower.

That convention moved, changed dates, and has had various chairpersons, but mostly is run by the same people who started it and still has the name I gave it.  Even today, years after Marion's passing, the convention groups a bundle of related interests together and draws Darkover fans from around the country to Maryland on Thanksgiving weekend.  I was at most of them until I moved to Arizona.

So this fellow who bought new Sime~Gen paper editions at Darkover emailed Jean Lorrah and I to say how enjoyable they were and  give us a URL with further commentary.


That link should lead you to the fiction written by this reader. 

Here's a quote from that entry:

-----Quote from Highmage -----------
What made the Sime-Gen Series brilliant was Jacqueline’s vision of the future and the life and death nature of that future…  Humanity mutates, dividing humanity into two species – one of which seems to be parasitic. Yet there are those who realize that the mutation is meant to be symbiotic and seek to end all the killing that threatens the extinction of both branches of humanity. With the mutation the world as we know if comes to an end and the two species establish territories – which don’t recognize the other as human beings. The Gens look just like us, but that’s not the truth – they produce a substance called selyn, which the Simes need to survive.

These stories span centuries of history taking readers into questions of what it means to be human and feel so poignant they are timeless.

There isn’t a Sime-Gen book that I haven’t read at least five times, so I’m thrilled to be reading the first new stories in years. There are two new volumes Personal Recognizance/The Story Untold (a double edition) and To Kiss of To Kill, and, a third, I understand, is coming out in 2012.

------End Quote-------------

The third he mentions is The Farris Channel, Sime~Gen #12, (Personal Recognizance is numbered separately from The Sory Untold ) and is now available in paper and ebook.

The comments on how "re-readable" the Sime~Gen novels are tell me that I did achieve my objective of writing novels that would be worth their cover price because they weren't (as publishers insisted anything labeled SF be) read-and-toss novels.

Romance novels likewise are considered read-and-toss, not worth keeping for your grandchildren, not worth re-reading 10 years later.

But I wrote for the future reader as well as about an imaginary future.  I set the stories in a time after the collapse of this civilization, so everything was "the same but different."  As a result, the novels don't suffer from out-dated technology in the stories.

The most "contemporary" settings in the series were in Unto Zeor, Forever and Mahogany Trinrose as well as RenSime.  They are now "historical" for us.

The new novel, Personal Recognizance, is set at a time when universities are just getting used to mainframe computers on campus.

One nice advantage of e-books is that they don't get dog-eared, dirty, coffee-stained and the binding doesn't fall apart when you re-read them 10 times or more.  Publishers doing science fiction or romance as original paperbacks package the books to be read once and discarded.  The paper yellows and crumbles, the binding fails, the beautiful art on the cover gets creased and ripped.  They don't expect the stories to be durable, so the package is not either.

The ebook and downloadable audio (i.e. with no physical disk to lose or wear out)  is really taking off now that there are good "readers" such as Kindle, Nook, and various handhelds, phones and tablets (most of which read your audiobooks as well as ebooks).  Here are current 2011 statistics from Publisher's Weekly:



...while downloadable audio rose 25.5% for the year.
In December, e-book sales rose 72% and the AAP noted that based a seasonal buying patterns it expects e-book sales to show strong gains in January and possible February as well as new digital device owners buy more titles.  In the month, sales of children’s hardcover books rose, but sales fell in the other trade categories.
-----END QUOTE------

So these statistics make me joyful that the audiobook of Sime~Gen #1 House of Zeor will be out in a few weeks.

Over the last few years in this blog, we've been exploring why Romance and Science Fiction (worse yet, the combination) are regarded as read-and-toss -- as if something inherent in the genre itself prevented the existence of classics that would out-last the author, or of classics you would save to give to your children who would give them to your grandchildren. 

As you've seen with the passing of Anne McCaffrey last November, her novels are still enchanting new young readers -- and may well soon be a film or series of films, possibly going on to television.

This field, SF, Fantasy, Romance, and every criss-crossing combination, has already produced lasting classics recommended by older readers for younger ones.  When I began selling my fiction, that was a laughable idea.  Star Trek changed a lot, but not the attitude that nothing called "science fiction" could ever be a classic.

Today, Star Trek itself is such a classic, spanning generations and a new film-based universe is starting to appear.

I began selling my science fiction before I wrote the Bantam paperback Star Trek Lives! but I learned a lot about creating "classic" science fiction by studying Star Trek.  I used what I learned, and refined my technique, and believed Sime~Gen would last.  It's only now old enough that testimony of the kind produced by this reader counts (who is using the web to hone his writing craft -- see last week's post ...


...for more on how to use the web to hone writing craftsmanship.)

It's possible that I really have created a classic.  A few more decades and we may know. 

My Tuesday entries on this blog have been focused on leading you through what I learned from studying Star Trek, Darkover, and many classics (such as Thubway Tham that I talked about last week), so that you can write with confidence and look forward to getting reader responses like this.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Thinking About Antagonists

Recently I watched the Frank Sinatra movie A HOLE IN THE HEAD, which I saw as a child when it first came out (1959). From what little I remembered of the story, I thought of it as a romantic comedy, with the widowed father protagonist, Tony, torn between his free-spirited girlfriend who lacks any interest in family or marriage and the sweet, homebody young widow his sister-in-law introduces him to. As it turns out, the romantic thread remains a subplot, with the girlfriend departing for an unknown destination and the young widow becoming a friend rather than a lover. The main story centers on the hero’s conflict with his straitlaced, workaholic older brother, Mario. Mario and his wife fly down from New York to Miami, determined to straighten out Tony by marrying him to a sensible woman and getting him set up in a solid business, or, if that project fails, to take Tony’s preteen son back to New York and give the boy a “normal” life.

This movie provides a great example of an antagonist who is not a villain, simply a well-meaning man pursuing goals that seem right to him. Mario and his wife have a perfectly good motive for urging Tony to quit his position as manager of a hotel that has been a financial failure (he’s so far in debt that the landlord is about to terminate the lease) and abandon his get-rich-quick schemes. They sincerely believe Tony is on the road to ruin, and the audience can see their point. We can also understand why they think a nearly bankrupt beachfront hotel isn’t a proper environment for a motherless boy to grow up in. Although Mario is overbearing, bullheaded, and not very likable, he acts out of an underlying love. At the same time, the obvious love between Tony and his son makes us root for the two to stay together. As for giving up the hotel in favor of a shop somewhere in New York state, we can see from the beginning of the film that Tony just wouldn’t be himself anymore if he made that move.

In the end, Tony “wins,” not by “beating” his brother in straightforward conflict, but through Mario’s own realization that Tony and his son are happy together, and their happiness in their unconventional lifestyle trumps the considerations of financial security and conventional family life that Mario originally wanted to force on them. At the same time, Tony undergoes a crisis that awakens him to becoming a bit more responsible without losing his essential free-spirited nature. And Mario even decides he should take a vacation instead of rushing back to his New York business. The final scene of Mario, his wife, Tony, Tony’s son, and the young widow frolicking on the beach is a lovely “show not tell” of reconciliation among characters who clashed through most of the story.

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Amateur Goes Professional

The Nanowrimo exercise always has beginning and professional writers talking all over facebook and twitter about how many words they produced in a day, or week, and declaring failure and dropping out of the race if they can't produce words by the yard.

Measuring of success at writing as a number of words has two sides to it:

a) many markets do pay by the "word" so the faster you produce the more money you make.  Words/day = $/day = professionalism

b) but novel markets don't pay by the word but by the well turned, completed, plot with all supports in place to make it fun to read without much editing.

And then there's the non-fiction markets.  Newspapers, print and online, pay by the article -- with a total subject covered within a specified number of words, K bytes, or space (lines, whatever). 

Good writing is not measured by the number of words you produce -- if it were, then only short words would be professional.  (one could argue that's the trend!)

However, there is something to be said for professionalism being measured in SPEED of production. 

This measure is entirely market driven.  Novels usually produce an advance against royalties and after the book has earned the advance, the author gets a little bit each time a copy sells.  But that business model is dying very quickly. 

The e-book market pays no advance, but a bigger royalty per copy sold.  And books don't go out of print in a couple of weeks. 

The e-author's business model then is not to write quickly, but to write something that will be talked about, tweeted about, commented on, and recommended on goodreads etc.  The author's objective under the new business model must be to write solidly.

But there are bills to pay now.  You can't mount a social media campaign if you can't pay your internet connection bill.  So you must produce quickly, but also solidly.

This is a dilemma brought to my attention by the following tweet.
SheviStories 11:44am via Tweet Button

Improv for Writers, Part 3: Speed Writer--learn to write FAST! shevi.blogspot.com/2011/11/improv… #litchat #kidlitchat #YALitChat #WritersRoad #NaNoWriMo
Improv and Nanowrimo have something in common - training.

I've made this point many times in this blog - you don't "learn" to write, you "train" to write.

As I was taught when I was in elementary school, by the professional writer, Alma Hill, "Writing is a performing art."

This is also true of journalism where one must go out, get the story, come back and type it up for publication within the hour.  The words have to be there, making sense, covering the entire topic with all the facts straight, and most of the spelling correct. 

There's a college degree in journalism that gets you started, but nothing except practice actually brings that skill online for you.

And the same is true of fiction writing.  Fiction is a performing art.  Fiction writing is brought to professional levels and standards only by practice against a clock, against a deadline, or in competition.

That's the good thing in the nanowrimo exercise.  Many people need "pressure" in an open forum, a classroom atmosphere, a newspaper's bullpen, or a filmmaker's pitch session to perfect these skills.  Others master the skill set faster in private, and alone. 

Most fiction-writer personalities actually do better in solitude -- at least up to a point.

So we are seeing a variety of these online open, public forum exercise halls appearing where creative people practice their skills.  This crop of online trained writers will be the top tier of the profession within then next 20 years or so, the core of their career building years.

But the participants in such open exercises where they obsesses on words-by-the-day output as being "writers" will also be the occupants of the bottom tier of always-rejected writers.  Those will be the folks who practiced their errors until their brains had literally incorporated the errors into their synapses and no further lessons can fix their errors.

Since the measure of professional success is $$$ income, which is caused by words-by-the-day output goals being met, and all the books on writing craft come to the same bottom line -- a million words for the garbage can before you produce anything worth selling -- how do you avoid ingraining errors?

I've seen careers go both ways -- each successive published novel a vast improvement over the last, or each successive novel repeating the same errors. 

What can a beginning writer learn that can prevent that from happening to them?

That may be the wrong question.  Let's phrase it another way. 

Where can a beginning writer find out how to write fast?  And just how fast is the right speed?

Back to the model of writing that Alma Hill taught me.  Writing is a performing art.  So look to the training processes in performing arts to find the best model for mastering novel writing at the professional level.

Look at the training of little girls in ballet class -- then look at a Master Class at the New York Ballet.

Look at a little boy's first violin lessons -- then look at the "lessons" taken by a member of the Philadelphia Philharmonic.

Look at piano lessons for 6th grader -- then look at jazz pianists jamming.

Is the measure of professional ballet dancing how fast you can dance?  Well, yes and no.

Must a violinist play fast to earn money at it?  Yes, and no. 

What makes the difference between the amateur performer and the professional? 

It's not the actual speed with which they do the performance but how fast they are able to understand instructions and produce what is required on the first try.

A professional actor comes onstage with a troupe from a High School, knows the whole play from having done it dozens of times, looks around the stage, sees the taped on marks for the actors, asks the director a few questions, listens carefully, then just does the performance -- with precision, effortlessly.

"Effortlessly" is the key -- as I learned from Robert Heinlein's characters, sounding spontaneous is a matter of careful preparation.

How do you get to where you can project the seemingly effortless performance of something which is inherently difficult?  Repetition. Practice.

But what exactly do you practice and how?  Does just doing it over and over produce that ability?

Think of the ballet mistress drilling a professional troupe.  She walks among them as they do routine stretches and moves, jogs an elbow here, prods a knee there, lines them up, pokes a chin, scolds for a sour expression -- correcting and correcting their errors and never letting them practice an error, not by a fraction of an inch.

That's what editors do for writers. 

It's feedback.  Writers can't get it from readers because "the book the reader reads is not the book the writer wrote."  Reading is a very personal experience, a creative experience, a unique experience.  A good story can be reread many times, and become a classic down the generations, because if there are none of those "errors" the ballet mistress corrects, the performance is "effortless" and the reader can't see the writer at all.

Each time the reader reads that book, the book is different because the reader has changed. 

The editor, on the other hand, is not reading subjectively but objectively.  The editor's job is to judge the work by how well it conforms to its trope, to its genre signature. 

See my series of 7 posts on editing.  Here is #7 with links to the previous ones.


Training in writing as a ballet dancer trains in ballet, or a violinist, pianist, actor, singer, football player or martial artist trains, will allow the writer to produce product at an optimum rate to allow the product to change with the reader.

The trick is to train under supervision, not just do the same thing doggedly over and over. 

What Events like nanowrimo and the "games" suggested on the blog entry I found on twitter lack is that kind of feedback from supervision that a ballet mistress or voice coach provides, immediate correction, immediate discipline.  The immediacy, the interruption of the move to reposition precisely, causes the training to be effective.

Haven't you wondered why working professional actors go to "voice lessons"?  Surely after all these years, they don't need "lessons."

They aren't "lessons" -- nothing to learn.  They are training, with instant correction of errors to prevent the ingraining of the error. 

"But," you may be thinking, "there is no wrong way to write, no wrong way to tell a story!"

That's true.  There is no wrong story, and no two writers achieve their end-product via the same path.  In fact, any given writer will choose a different path for different works. 

But just as music has a structure which is innate in the structure of the universe, so too fiction has a structure which is innate in the structure of the universe -- which is fine, because each human being is a unique bit of the structure of the universe (very possibly containing the whole universe, too).

Yes, Chinese musical scales differ (markedly) from European scales - mid-Eastern scales - etc.  But each scale works in its own way from the mathematics behind sound. 

Many musicians grow up playing and then composing music "by ear" -- having internalized the scale they're familiar with so they create with it.  Many writers, likewise, fall right into storytelling effortlessly, by sheer talent.  Emotion is to storytelling as sound is to music.  There are 7 cardinal emotions behind the structure of fiction, just as there are 7 tones in an octave (two do's, different but the same).  Some of us are born with a Talent for seeing those 7 emotions, others not. (this is a sub-set of the Chakras and we have to talk about Chakras and Cardinal Emotions together with how a writer can use language to stimulate the reader's Chakras, but that's a tiny bit off topic today.)

Other writers have to learn, and then train, to be able to produce their stories for a wide market.  Even the talented have to train to make the top tier of worldclass performers in the scales of emotion.

So how do you train? 

#1) you learn - you find out what you must do, get it into your head what the objective is.

You do that by reading blogs like this one, lots of books on writing, reading about writing, and then reading a whole lot from the field you want to write in and analyzing as I've shown you in previous blogs.  And of course, you construct your business model.

#2) you practice - you train in your dojo every day, morning, noon, and night, and in between. 

That means you write, just as a would-be violin soloist for a Philharmonic orchestra or a beginning opera star would practice. Six to eight hours a day, you practice. 

And just what is the secret to practicing an instrument?

Tempo.  That's it in a word, tempo.

First you go very slowly, striking each note with careful, precise deliberation.  But not unevenly -- in tempo.  The spaces between the notes, the silences, are as meaningful as the sound in forming the ultimate product, the song, the poetry of emotion.  So you start by striking those notes.

In fact, you learn to touch-type and become speedy at it the same way.  Careful, singular, deliberate strikes, one plodding strike at a time, but in the correct rhythm.  Go slowly enough that you can do it accurately.

Once you have the basic process down, one note after another, you do it again and again, nice and even, but with a relentless BEAT -- you make a mistake, you don't stop, you just plonk right onwards.  Next time through, you focus on that missed-spot and you hit it, staying in tempo.  And then again, and again, until you get it right.  If you stop every time you make a mistake, you learn to make a mistake right there and stop.  It ruins the performance.  So you play through the mistake, and plod on. 

If you try the nanowrimo too soon in your mastery, you'll fail because you aren't ready for full speed.  It's just like martial arts training - you get fast by going slow. 

Gradually, you pick up the tempo, but not so much that the speed makes you make mistakes.  And you do it at that speed until you don't make mistakes.  Then you pick up the tempo, and do it again and again.  Then faster.

Once you've learned a number of songs that way, you begin to find that the next one you learn is easier to learn.

Now a "song" in music is like a "genre" in fiction -- a song, a piece, a symphony, a quartet, and so on -- each has a structure, a protocol, an appeal based on expectations.  In dance, choreography has "composition" -- (competitive figure skating too) -- each type of artform has its "rules" comprised of the elements that have been successful with large audiences.

Becoming a professional writer is just like becoming a professional musician able to play "requests" at a party, or an audition for a movie, or to be in the orchestra at a circus performance.  Yes it takes practice, but you must not practice your mistakes.  Speed is not the objective.  Just because you can play it fast doesn't mean you played it well.  The "speed" the professional has that the amateur doesn't have lies in the ability to do new things as easily and proficiently as doing old things. 

That "speed" comes from spending one's whole work-day on just this one skill, acquiring, practicing UNDER SUPERVISION so errors get corrected before they get ingrained, teaching, and performing -- a whole life focused on this one skill. 

That's why you must get paid for your work -- because there's no time to do anything else, no strength or attention.

To get paid, you don't write a certain quota of words per day, you write the appropriate amount at the appropriate tempo for this performance.  Professionalism allows you to judge what is "appropriate" in each instance and be right -- because your very life depends on that judgement.  If you're wrong, you don't get paid and can't buy food.

Trust me, money sharpens the judgement remarkably.

Look at the career of Johnston McCulley -- historical yes, and in an era with a slightly different business model than we can use today -- but well worth learning from:

----------FROM "Tales of Thubway Tham" Wildside Press 2011 on Kindle ----------

Johnston McCulley will be forever famous as the creator of Zorro, the Robin Hood-like hero of old California. But few realize how truly prolific and creative McCulley was throughout his long career as a writer. McCulley (1883-1958) made first true specialist in pulp-fiction periodical, Detective Story Magazine, a special home for his work. In its pages he launched series after series . . . The Avenging Twins (who appeared in a series of eight adventures between 1923 and1926), the Black Star (fourteen stories from 1916-1930), The Crimson Clown (seventeen stories from 1926-1931), The Man in Purple (three stories in 1921), The Spider (eleven stories between1918 and 1919), Terry Trimble (four stories between 1917 and 1919), The Thunderbolt (three stories between 1920 and 1921) but most especially Thubway Tham (who appeared in more than one hundred and eighty stories between 1916 and 1948, at first in Detective Story Magazine, but later in such places as Thrilling Detective, with later reprints in The Saint Mystery Magazine, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine, and others). The Thubway Tham series, you will note,starts before and lasts longer than all of McCulley’s other mystery series combined! Clearly Tham was a favorite character, one to whom the author returned time and again.

Thubway Tham is a small, short-tempered gnome of a man, a professional pickpocket with an annoying lisp. But he is no mere thief . . . he is the king of his chosen profession, a master “dip” who works only in the subways of New York City. Like all such villains, he faces a cunning adversary in Police Detective Craddock, who is always half a pace behind. Craddock has sworn to put Tham behind bars, where he belongs. But Tham is clever enough to always remain one step ahead of Craddock and everyone else.

Johnston McCulley; John Betancourt. Tales of Thubway Tham (Kindle Locations 48-50).

There are echoes of the pulp era business model with the advent of e-publishing, Indie publishers and self publishing.  The similarities may far outweigh the differences, so study the careers of famous writers of that era for how they learned and honed their craft.

Nanowrimo is trying to simulate that pulp era honing, and may just be the tonic you need to get you going and keep you going.  But remember the ballet mistress training already famous professional ballerinas, pounding her cane and shouting ONE-TWO-THREE-ELBOWS OUT CHIN IN - FOUR FIVE!

Improv has a lot to be said for it, but as with acting, it's more a matter of with whom you improv than what you improv.

If you can find an elderly Johnston McCulley to watch you write, smack your jutting elbows and elevate your chin and remind you to smile while you type, you may find these online exposures to writing/pacing well worth while.

Just remember success isn't counted by a certain number of words per day but by the appropriate number of words per project.

You want to earn the title true specialist in the e-book world?  Practice, practice, practice performing your art.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Shifting Poles and Toilet Water Swirl

There may or may not be a connection. Have you ever googled "direction of swirl in toilet"? (Before you get to the "toilet", Google will offer you the option of the bathtub, instead. But that is beside the point.)

According to Wikipedia "It is a commonly held misconception that when flushed, the water in a toilet bowl swirls one way if the toilet is north of the equator and the other way if south of the equator, due to the Coriolis effect – usually, counter clockwise in the northern hemisphere, and clockwise in the southern hemisphere. In reality, the direction that the water takes is much more determined by the direction that the bowl's rim jets are pointed, and it can be made to flush in either direction in either hemisphere by simply redirecting the rim jets during manufacture. On the scale of bathtubs and toilets, the Coriolis effect is too weak to be observed except under laboratory conditions"

Scrupulous attribution in accordance with Wiki's Creative Commons policies

So.... if you have not redirected your rim jets recently, and your waste water swirls in the "wrong" direction, there could be a mega tsunami in your future.

Not out of the toilet! I'm talking about a global disaster. As it probably would be a dis-aster.... not "aster" as in star, more likely as in "slow moving asteroid". On the other hand, our Sun is a star, and it was the cause of the trouble in 2012 (the movie).

  • A geological or axial shift in which the Earth's crust literally slips around its molten core - like a loose peel on an orange - altering the positions of land masses with respect to the planet's rotation on its axis. This could happen by a few degrees or by many degrees. Antarctica could wind up at the equator and Miami could be the new North Pole. The effects on our civilization could be devastating.
  • A shift of the magnetic poles only. As it is, the Earth's magnetic north (the north that compasses point to) is not exactly the same as the true North Pole. This magnetic pole is not fixed and can move. In fact, scientists are fairly certain that it has shifted by as much as 180 degrees several times in the past. This change may be sudden or it may be gradual, taking place over hundreds or even thousands of years. The effects on life on the planet would probably be minimal, affecting perhaps the migratory or homing instincts of some animals.
See alsohttp://www.netplaces.com/guide-to-2012/earth-changes-and-the-pole-shift/magnetic-versus-physical-pole-shift.htm

Okay. All this reminds me of one of Professor Trelawney's tea leaf reading (Tessomancy) scenes. (As an author of alien romance, I also enjoy fantasy, and science fiction.) Am I going to believe that we are in the slow midst of a magnetic pole shift, if the toilet does not have a good, vigorous swirl in either direction?


No. But, if you are excessively prudent, you might enjoy this blog, which suggests where to go househunting in the next nine months.


Nowhere in the USA is a particularly good spot. Nor is Europe. Which brings me to the science fiction movie 2012, which poetically put mankind back in --or, more properly, on-- Africa.

I just had a thought,  "if tessomancy is tea leaf reading what is toilet bowl reading?" (For the very limited purpose of prognosticating the end of the world as we know it.) Google hasn't thought of answering that, so I guess I can please myself.

Latrinomancy? But, the Romans did not enjoy a view of a vortex.
So perhaps Ajaxomancy? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flush_toilet

"1596: Sir John Harington (born 1561) published A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, Called the Metamorphosis of Ajax, describing a forerunner to the modern flush toilet installed at his house at Kelston.[7] The design had a flush valve to let water out of the tank, and a wash-down design to empty the bowl. He installed one for his godmother Elizabeth I of England at Richmond Palace, although she refused to use it because it made too much noise.[citation needed] The Ajax was not taken up on a wide scale in England, but was adopted in France under the name Angrez."

This week, I watched 2012. I watched it as research for a Crazy Tuesday On Saturday radio interview (I am the host) with author Robert P Bennett, about his Blind Traveler mystery series which takes place in 2021 when natural forces have changed the world, the poles have shifted, pressure is building, and earthquakes wreak havoc.... and a blind computer technologist solves murders using his other senses.

No, we did not talk about toilets. We talked about disability; about Chicago as a wonderful holiday destination for a geek or an agricultural pathologist; about turtles; and about shifting pole theory; and also about the things people do that piss off a person in a wheelchair, and how blind men (and women) might get around using GPS and virtual reality.

I was going to scour the bottom of the metaphorical barrel for a pithy last line, but instead, please check out curmudgeonly remarks about teachers who apparently never flush the toilet or wash their hands on "bad Coriolis".  http://www.ems.psu.edu/~fraser/Bad/BadCoriolis.html

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Microscopic Mind Control

A scientist theorizes about the effects of toxoplasmosis, often transmitted by domestic cats, on the brains of infected people:

How Your Cat Is Making You Crazy

This organism is far from the only parasite that changes the behavior of its host. Parasites that cause their hosts to behave in ways that make them more likely to be eaten by predators (which then spread the infection) are well known. It seems creepier in the context of human brain function and behavior, though.

An infection that makes the victim more receptive to bonding with cats? Explains a lot, doesn't it?

If we have to be covertly manipulated by other animals, I'd rather have feline overlords than secret vampiric lizard masters, anyway.

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Believing in Happily Ever After Part 5 TV Series Once Upon A Time on ABC

Part 4 of this Believing in Happily Ever After sequence of blog posts is

It has links to the previous 3 parts and the Verisimilitude vs. Reality series.

In Verisimiltude vs. Reality and other posts linked in that series, we delved into the real world the reader lives in and looked at how that real-world environment shapes the enjoyment of a fictional environment.  Eventually, we'll look even deeper into various methods a writer uses to handle theme and how the chosen method affects the size and shape of the audience the writer might reach.

The purpose of this study is to deliver a Happily Ever After ending experience to readers/viewers who flatly disbelieve in the possibility.

Part of the real-world environment a reader lives in is the fiction (video, text, big screen, radio) the reader is immersed in.

The TV Series Once Upon A Time on ABC is part of that environment. 

I was reminded forcefully of this in November 2011 by the announcement of the death of Anne McCaffrey, creator of the Dragonriders of Pern.  Her biography page says she was born April 1st, 1926, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at 1:30 p.m. and her first novel was published by Ballantine Books in 1967. 

My first story was published by Fred Pohl in World of If Magazine of Science Fiction in January 1969. 

In April of 2011 Copperheart announced that filming of  the first Pern novel, Dragonflight, would begin in 2012. 


The Friday after the announcement of her passing was a #scifichat devoted to Santa, and what SF presents SF readers would give to other SF readers.  But the second hour of the chat became a remembrance of Anne McCaffrey, not just Pern but all her other wonderful novels.  The discussion branched out into writers she had influenced and what her success with Pern introduced to the entire field.

McCaffrey broke through with not just the overt sexuality of the Dragon/Rider relationship in the Pern novels, but the emotional bonding of a true, committed, to-the-death relationship.  That angle resonated with the audience of the 1970's.

I don't know what they're planning to do with the film, but there are Pern fans involved in creating it.  From the discussion on twitter, though, I gather different readers remember different components of those novels. 

Some people had avoided the Pern novels because they thought the novels were fantasy.  They aren't.  They're science fiction that looks like fantasy.

Fast-forward to 2012 and take a close look at the TV Series Once Upon A Time.

Is it fantasy or science fiction?  Is it Paranormal Romance?  Is it kid-lit?  What is this series?  Is it even important?

Note how it does 2 things that have become standard fare on Television.

a) It rewrites "history" as "steam punk" does -- but focuses on the fairy tale universe of Snow White and Prince Charming with the Wicked Witch (complete with mirror and poison apples), not the Victorian era.

b) It juxtaposes this "fantasy" world of the rewritten storybook with our everyday reality, (like Urban Fantasy often uses 2 universes with a door between).  You may remember how Forever Knight handled flashbacks to hundreds of years ago. 

Yep, I said "between" -- which isn't quite like "Between" of the Pern novels through which Dragons teleport their Riders to fight Thread.

But the principle is the same as Star Trek's transporter, Warp Drive, or any number of "devices" that let characters travel from one spot to another fast enough not to slow the plot down.

Once an audience has been introduced to these techniques -- as in Time Tunnel, Quantum Leap, or Sliders -- producers doing another show can use that technique as a given and get on with their own stories.

So, despite McCaffrey introducing readers to Between in the 1970's, and Star Trek's transporter and warp drive coming online in the 1960's, the Pern movie will be regarded as borrowing or stealing the "device" of Between. 

The Pern novels start at the beginning of a period of warfare against "Thread" (a crop-destroying rain of organisms from space), in which misery, starvation, poverty, and perhaps the extinction of humanity on the planet Pern, are the apparent direction of life.  An apparently stable society is brought down around the heads of its ordinary people, and it's power brokers, while the disregarded powerless are elevated to hero status. 

It's very much what this reality faces today -- the impending or actually in progress meltdown of the global financial system.  Or the meltdown may be over by now and we just don't realize we've hit bottom and are going to climb again.

We also have impending war, and war in progress in a lot of places, war that brings the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

That's the reality the audience lives in, and would very much like to escape.

What's better than escaping Reality, though, is coming to understand it in a way that lets you carve out a life leading to your own Happily Ever After.  Fiction can provide that kind of "grip" on reality that steadies you down for the long haul up to a better life.

The Pern novels depict a world locked in a frozen feudal system, suddenly attacked by Thread, and saved by the superstitious, traditional, disregarded, way too expensive fossilized organization known as the Dragonriders.  Suddenly, the feudal lords can't protect their people, but the poverty-stricken, useless, and widely regarded as nut-fringe folks are the only ones who can protect people.

I think Pern can fly as a TV Series once it's been a successful movie.

Pern does not paint a rosey Happily Ever After picture.  It doesn't even give you a "Happily For Now" (HFN) ending.  The novels end on the upbeat of a challenge conquered, but with the vista of a new, bigger challenge yet to come.

The Hope in these endings is that during the "action" section of the novels, Relationships form that are solid, perhaps unbreakable, and enable the teams to face bigger challenges with the expectation of surviving.  Thus the Pern novels are perfect examples of Intimate Adventure. 

The secret of the Pern novels though is in the story the theme its founded on, and how that theme is shown not told. 

The Relationships formed have the seeds of real Happiness in them, and the overwhelming force of what might be described as karma.

The characters, dragons and humans, all go through a stepwise process of bonding with a soul mate, and the result always seems - after the fact - to have been inevitable, right, and just. 

Yes, Poetic Justice again:

The Pern novels are a perfect example of a) Paranormal Romance (the telepathic bonding with Dragons) and karmic marriages, and b) that there really is Justice in the world, and it always SINGS (music is a huge component of the Pern world).

Now,  contrast/compare the TV Series Once Upon A Time with the Pern novels of Anne McCaffrey.

Eventually, the Pern series does get to including time travel, so there is another comparison.

Once Upon A Time updates the fairy tale world of Snow White etc. using modern characters and relationships.  The story is thus more accessible or believable to the adult audience.

The thing is, when these fairy tales were originally circulating as folk-tales, they depicted the "real" or modern world the intended audience lived in.  Today, there aren't many "folk" tales, made up by non-professional story-tellers and passed around to be improved on by others.  Most of our fiction, even for children, is professionally created and designed for the broadest possible audience.  (YouTube is changing that; urban folk-legends and folk music is reviving!)

So it would seem appropriate to "update" the oldest tales again, and embue them with the moral lessons of today's world, rather than the original lessons inserted by the Brothers Grimm from extant folktales that probably date back before the 1500's.  It's done in every generation. 

Google "Snow White" and you'll find everything from a new forthcoming movie to scholarship by serious professors.  Folk tales are very revealing of the underlying culture.

So consider what this Once Upon A Time TV Series reveals about Hollywood's idea of our culture, of what we are, what we should be, and what we want to be.

There's a lot of philosophical material in this subject, some of it as yet untouched by writers looking for themes.

I want to point you to just one aspect of this series that you can ponder and maybe plunder for story material.

The premise of Once Upon A Time is that the Evil Witch curses the community of Snow White and Prince Charming to be transported to a place where THERE ARE NO HAPPILY EVER AFTER ENDINGS - not for anyone except the Evil Witch herself! 

And that place where it is a fact that the HEA does not exist and can never exist is HERE - in our everyday reality.

The Evil Witch is now the Mayor of a small town in the USA where people can't leave - they can't escape.  If they try, horrid things happen, driving them back.  The Mayor's word is law.  She's happy. 

The curse can be broken, but only by one woman who was born when the curse was hurled.  She was rescued and flung aside into our world before the curse trapped her, too.  

Only one small boy knows what's going on because he found the fairy tale book.  He lures the woman who can break the curse to the town, they wake Prince Charming from a coma, and then things get interesting.

The premise that sells this TV show to a major network may be taken to be  "this world's natural condition is that Happily Ever After can not happen."  That's why this world was the Evil Witch's chosen destination.  Or maybe the curse only applies to the one small town the Witch dominates?  It's fascinating how they dance around this topic, probably waiting for ratings responses to see which direction to take the show. 

They appear to be waiting to see if the majority subconsciously believe that Happily Ever After can't happen in this world.  And then they'll decide what to do about changing that situation. 

By using this premise as the main conflict, the series creators induce a hostile audience to watch (and become addicted to) a fairy tale about restoring the world's ability to produce a Happily Ever After ending to Romances.

They can wait to see the audience response to decide how "dark" to make this world, just as the TV Series Beauty and the Beast danced around the Romance -- the premise being that the couple could never be together (because he was a Beast who had to hide "below" in darkness). 

The Once Upon A Time TV series may be the breakthrough Event (the Overton Window Event) we've been looking for.  It may be another try at the Beauty and the Beast audience, and it might succeed in reaching beyond that audience.  Another show in this line of development is Lois And Clark.   The dramatic problem with all these show-premises is that once the inherent conflict is solved, the show is over.  If you don't solve it, the audience loses interest.  If you do solve it, your job as writer/producer is over and you don't get paid anymore.  The only way to avoid solving the problem is to turn the plot in a "dark" direction, away from the Happily Ever After. 

The beginning of Once Upon A Time takes our theme, our main problem, and puts it "on the nose" the exact way the TV Series Leverage treats its theme ("The rich and powerful take what they want: we steal it back for you.")



But the TV Series Leverage is structured for an endless sequence of adventures while the main characters barely hang onto life and sanity. 

The TV Series Once Upon A Time may herald a change in what's acceptable to particular audiences as Star Trek and Pern did in the 1970's.  The producers may tackle the conflict head-on and change our world into a world where Happily Ever After is an available option for most people, including fairy tale characters trapped in a town dominated by an Evil Witch. 

Oh, do remember, Star Trek was not popular in the late 1960's when it first aired for barely 3 years.  The explosion only came when it went into reruns and sifted into the consciousness of TV viewers during the 1970's.  Those were not the same people who were reading Pern, though there were overlaps.

Most people who read Pern (and Sime~Gen) watched Star Trek -- but most people who watched Star Trek did not read Pern or any other science fiction.  In fact, even when the Star Trek novels took off as New York Times Bestsellers (an unprecedented event I participated in by being the Agent who sold A. C. Crispin's Star Trek original novel Yesterday's Son), those who bought and devoured those tie-in novels did not follow the established Science Fiction authors who wrote them back into the authors' own worlds.

It took decades (a generation) to bring Star Trek tie-in readers into science fiction.

The main force that I think did it was Star Trek fan fiction (which is what my non-fiction book Star Trek Lives! is about). 

Writers of Star Trek fan fiction grew up to be Science Fiction and/or Fantasy professionals, an unthinkable result of indulging in writing fan fiction.  The explosion of the adult Fantasy novels mostly by women writers, many of whom had been fanfic writers or readers, opened the door for the modern treatment of sexuality and soul-mate bonding in Paranormal Fantasy. 

I don't think it's a cause-effect chain of events.  But there is a relationship that we can explore in later entries in this blog series.

In the mean time, watch Once Upon A Time, read the Dragonriders of Pern novels by Anne McCaffrey, and compare them.  And see what is done with Pern on film! 

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Thursday, February 09, 2012


Another interesting bit of information from Temple Grandin’s ANIMALS IN TRANSLATION: Some scientists theorize that brains evolved because animals became mobile. A creature that doesn’t move around has no need for a brain in coping with its environment. As an example, Grandin describes a marine animal that is free-swimming in its juvenile period, similar to a tadpole. When it matures, it becomes anchored to one spot on the sea floor. In the process, it re-absorbs parts of its juvenile form, including the brain—it almost literally eats its own brain, which it doesn’t need anymore.

I once read a story about an alien species that looked humanoid while immature and metamorphosed into plant-like creatures as adults. In this sessile phase they apparently became plant-like in intelligence (or absence thereof) too. The twist in the story was that they’d become stuck in permanent neoteny, and their species had even lost the memory of having originally had a two-stage life cycle (until the truth was rediscovered by accident).

Does this theory mean we could never meet intelligent trees?

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Research-Plot Integration in Historical Romance Part 5

Part 1 of this series is:

Part 2 of this series is:

Part 3 of this series is:
Part 4 of this series is:

We're examining the potential of Maggie Anton's trilogy, Rashi's Daughters:

We ended off last week talking about how a writer uses philosophy to paint a picture for the reader of "life, the universe, and everything" that's different from the picture the reader usually sees. 

Anton nails several bits of philosophy with exquisite precision.  She shows how Rashi's family owned and operated a vineyard and produced exemplary wine.  She researched the details of wine production in that era and inserted a lot of detail about it, using most of that detail in the production of her fascinating incidents.  For example, at one point a character dies by being overcome by fumes from the grape juice as it's being extracted from the grapes.

Anton discovered that the town where Rashi lived was a trading center through which a wide variety of goods flowed.  She details how the taxes from transactions on the trade fares interacted with the prosperity of the Jewish community and its relationships with the surrounding Christian communities. 

Most readers who know anything about Medieval Europe remember the later centuries when Jews were prohibited from various activities, rather than these early years of the collapse of the Roman empire.  Readers of today still have their impressions of the 20th century colored by vilification of the Jews for financial dealings.  We all know stories of financiers who lie, cheat, steal, and trick their way to wealth.  Anton is no doubt well aware of this attitude toward financial dealings and business in general. 

She no doubt knows that, for her readers, the attitude toward business as a profession is as incendiary as the attitude toward uppity women.  Yet all three novels, though they depict Rashi's daughters as ambitiously engaged in business, walk right by all the Talmudic material on business -- mentioning it offhandedly, off-stage, involving other characters, and focus Rashi's daughters' attention entirely on their feminist issues.

Anton does note Rashi's famous training of his Talmud students in the art of the vintner because scholars must have a profession.  She gives us a lot on that art, and a lot on the physician's art, but not the driving emotional reality behind choice of profession.

That focus on feminism is a philosophical choice.  So for a moment, let's look at another philosophical point she might have lit up instead of darkening out.

-------------EXAMPLE OF A PHILOSOPHY--------

Let's consider a philosophical "pixel" from Tzvi Freeman. 

Here's a long item with much to think about:

--------Quote from Tzvi Freeman article -- Numbers refer to his footnotes--------------

There are those professions that society considers noble callings, such as doctors, judges and professors. Society respects them for what they do. Then there are business people. Society respects them, too—but are they respected for what they do, or for what they get? Do we respect their occupation, or do we see them as doing a worthless job—making money out of money?

Where is business respected? Take a look in the Talmud.

In the Talmud you’ll find spiritual and earthly duties lumped together in ways that sends the modern mind spinning:

    Rava said, “When a soul stands before the heavenly court, it is asked, ‘Did you buy and sell fairly? Did you fix times for Torah study? Did you attempt to be fruitful and multiply? Did you look forward to the messianic redemption? Did you debate matters of wisdom? Did you understand one thing from another?’”2

Do you see that? Marrying, procreating and making an honest living are good and wonderful occupations—in the same breath as Torah study, gaining wisdom and keeping the faith.

Why? Because they benefit the world. As in the common talmudic term for making a living, that dignified and ennobled phrase, “settling of the world”3 —for, as the prophet states, “G-d did not create emptiness; He formed a world to be settled upon.”4

Maimonides sums up the Jewish position with strong words:

    Anyone who comes to the conclusion that he should involve himself in Torah study without doing work and derive his livelihood from charity, desecrates G-d's name, dishonors the Torah, extinguishes the light of faith, brings evil upon himself, and forfeits the life of the world to come, for it is forbidden to derive benefit from the words of Torah in this world.

    Our Sages declared: "Whoever benefits from the words of Torah forfeits his life in the world." Also, they commanded and declared: "Do not make them a crown to magnify oneself, nor an axe to chop with." Also, they commanded and declared: "Love work and despise Rabbinic positions." All Torah that is not accompanied by work will eventually be negated and lead to sin. Ultimately, such a person will steal from others.5

And so, the laws concerning earning an honest living and thereby making the world a more settled and civil place also belong in the holy books.

The medieval Augustinian view, on the other hand, saw all these as curses of the snake, the product of original sin—since they were directed by man’s evil impulse.6 Such, as well, was the view of the ancient Romans and Greeks, who looked askance at craftsmen, merchants and others who lived by toil.

And so, whereas the Jew saw work as good for the soul and moneymaking as of benefit to everyone involved, the society which enveloped them saw it as a tolerable sin. Not lending money alone, but almost every form of business was labelled “usury”—using someone else for one’s own benefit.7

Life began to change radically when European society adopted the Jewish attitude—that which Weber prudently coined “the Protestant ethic.” The Jews, wrote Montesquieu, “set the stage for the rebirth of European commerce, and with it the beginning of the decline of prejudice and the rise of a more gentle, less ferocious way of life.”8

-------------END QUOTE-------------------

Remember, Maggie Anton authentically put the daughters of Rashi into "business" -- married to traders, the daughters of a Vintner  -- and that one became a money might be true or not. 

The women's business endeavors, while quiet and out of the spotlight for the most part, were not a source of conflict but just mere background, an excuse for them to run around and have technical conversations about things they already knew about. 

Business and earning a living in a Torah Yeshiva was not what Anton's story was about. 

A story's conflict focuses a story, and exemplifies the theme by how the conflict resolves.  The essence of story is conflict, but that's not enough if the conflict doesn't start, progress, morph, and resolve. 

Now reread or just remember my older posts:

And you might want to ponder:


As I've said in previous parts of Research-Plot Integration, Anton chose the annecdotal structure rather than an actual plot structure for her trilogy.  So she doesn't have a conflict that starts at the first chapter of Book One and climaxes at the last page of Book III, leaving the reader gasping and crying, yet understanding their own life in this real world much better.

Anton mentions the stark distinction between the Christian views of the surrounding community and the close and isolated views of the Jewish community.  But she shrugs all that off by saying during this interval there was relative peace between the two communities.

Yet, Rashi lived at the threshold of the Crusades, the paroxysm of Europe draining the strength of the young male population into a killing-field of the Middle East.

Could any setting be more ripe for an in-depth discussion of the philosohical issues between the Middle East and Judaism and Christianity? 

Anton gives us the impression that the (historical fact of) learned daughters of a towering figure of Europe knew nothing but the scrapts of war news that get tossed into this story with little consequence.  Yes, Anton tells us how Spain was more hospitable on the one hand, and more corrosive of Jewish learning on the other -- but to do that, she breaks viewpoint and follows one of the sons-in-law who gets caught up in the study of Astronomy in Spain. Fine.  Very interesting.  Another annecdote whose only consequence is the angst and misery of the wife left behind who invents a whole new business model to get her husband to stay home -- only to find out that he'd rather study Astronomy than Talmud. 

Each annecdote is very strong, composed of very strong material -- but ultimately leaves the reader floating weightlessly without direction.

So what could Anton have done instead? 

What would an envelope plot, beginning on page 1 of Book 1 and climaxing on the last page of Book 3 -- with each Book having a plot that begins on page 1 and climaxes at the end just before the plot-advance of the envelope plot -- have added to this trilogy?

Remember my post on nested plots 

Anton's problem -- "write about the little known daughters of Rashi" -- is just the sort of writing problem the nested-plot structure, built on the nested-theme structure, solves. 

But to create a trilogy using that nested-plot structure, you need 1 single theme from which you derive 3 separate themes that "harmonize" with it, poetically, (as in Poetic Justice In Paranormal Romance).  Given the Medieval attitudes toward demons and angels, the setting is perfect for a Paranormal Romance complete with magical practices that work. 

Each of Anton's "anecdotes" has a different theme, and few of them are related.  So the only thematic statement that comes through to a reader who has no suspended disbelief is "women should not be distinguished from men." 

This is exemplified in the emphasis on how Rashi's daughters (reputedly) wore Tefilin (a Commandment binding on men) and did other things women aren't forbidden to do, but are exempt from doing. 

More on Tefilin, what's inside the leather cases, the blessings for donning them, etc:

But mystical Judaism holds that the female soul is permanently and emphatically distinct from the masculine soul.  Mystical Judaism (which Rashi didn't pay attention to) holds that the feminine soul is a little closer to holiness. 

Instead of these practices being incidental color on the lives of three exceptional women, it is left to be the only point of the story without any real "show don't tell" exploration of mystical Judaism.  Rashi did not encourage mysticism in his household (that's fact), but the surrounding Jewish culture was peripherally affected -- mostly in a superstitious way rather than a Kabbalah studies way. 

Although they enjoy praying with Tefilin, (achieving that practice is an incident referred to repeatedly later), Anton's characters don't seem to find a deepened spiritual existence, a greater insight, a prophetess's wisdom, from the practice. 

Anton depicts the practice of draping Tefilin on the headboards of beds where women are being delivered, and indicates this saves women's lives.  We see many births, some disasters, but can't make the connection. 

Anton also has the daughters resorting to specially written Mezuzah scrolls that purportedly embodied the mystical dimension. 

More on the Mezuzah:
All the information Anton unearthed in research is there in these books - with incidents contrived to make it seem logical to include that information -- contrived being the operative world.

How do you cure the problem of the "contrived" effect?

What cures the contrived, and gets rid of expository lumps full of deliciously interesting information you just have to include because you worked so hard on it, is internal conflict.

If you rely on the incident structure, you don't have any real conflict that can be resolved -- it's just "this happened" then "that happened."

If you don't have a conflict, you don't have a plot.

If you don't have a plot, you don't have a story -- because either the story generates the plot or the plot generates the story, but they go together like two sides of a coin.  That's why most writers (and readers) can't distinguish story from plot. 

The story is generated by the internal conflict.

The internal conflict is the character motivation -- and it works best when the character does not know they have an internal conflict at all.

Real people don't usually know they have an internal conflict until it's resolved -- or just at the point where they can name it, then they can resolve it.

So characters who don't know what's driving them, what's compelling or impelling them, seem "realistic" -- and cause the reader to suspend disbelief and fearlessly explore the made-up world the character lives in.

The internal conflict drives the character to act.  The action (or decision) of the main POV character is what initiates the plot.

The main character acts.  The antagonist re-acts.  (that's how you can tell the hero from the villain -- that's how you can tell who to root for -- always the hero acts first because it's the hero's story.  When the villain acts first, the villain becomes the hero and is rooted for.)

The main character, the main POV character, is "playing white" to use a chess analogy, and moves first.

Or put another way, the writer joins the action at the point in the character's life where she ACTS, and thereby causes her world and the people around her to react.  At other times in her life, she's not the hero of her story but a pawn in someone else's story. 

Anton started her story at a very good point, where Rashi's mother had become incapable of running the vineyard, and his wife called him home to "take care of the business." 

So the whole Talmudic teaching on the relationship between learning and business, earth and heaven, could have made a terrific envelope theme over the 3 books.

So Rashi comes home, meets his nearly grown daughters, and begins teaching them -- which leads to the Tefilin incident. 

Note that - Rashi meets his daughters (he was away learning Talmud as they grew and came home for holidays).

See?  Rashi meets.  It's not the girl's story, it's Rashi's. 

OK, the girl meets her father -- a fine beginning, but what does she do?  She does not act.  She is acted upon at that point -- Rashi begins to teach. 

Anton contrived the narrative so that the eldest girl becomes intrigued and wants to learn what Rashi is teaching, so she takes her spinning work and sits and listens -- passively.

That's why there's no plot, only incidents.  There's no plot because none of the 3 Daughters has a point in their lives when their story starts. 

Now suppose Anton had solved the problem differently.  Suppose she'd set out to use the nested themes, what could she use as the overall trilogy conflict?

Rashi vs. Mystical Judaism

In the trilogy, Rashi starts out a fairly young man - at that time, one didn't start studying mysticism until the age of 40, maybe much older.

The trilogy ends just about the point where Rashi dies.

History records that he never quite finished his Talmud commentary -- his sons-in-law and grandsons took over. 

DEPART FROM HISTORY - with a fantasy "what-if?"  --

What if Rashi did indeed study the mystical aspects, knew them cold, and maybe that's why his commentaries weren't completed?  What if Rashi learned the mystical teachings, and flat out rejected them?

What if his DAUGHTERS embraced the mystical with a fervor and a passion they, themselves, never understood? 

Father-Daughter conflicts over huge philosophical issues. 

That would give you their internal conflicts, each individual yet derived from a main unified conflict, thus lending itself to trilogy treatment. 

The internal conflicts would prompt non-rational or supra-rational actions which the daughters wouldn't understand themselves, which would cause the world to react in ways that might be interpreted as mystical - or not - depending on the reader's bent. 

You would have an internal conflict generating an external conflict that could resolve neatly at the end of the third book. 

What Anton left out of this trilogy is the "story" and internal conflicts generating actions which produce meaningful emotional maturation.  If there were a story, there would be a plot.  The girls are older at the end of the trilogy, but not different than they were at the beginning.  They don't have epiphanies, about-faces, massive disillusionments with philosophical certainties, even when faced with marital infidelity.

Anton's characters don't "arc" in the way Hollywood characters must.  If sold to film these books would be massacred in the attempt to create character-arcs. 

The trilogy is a chronicle, yes, but not a story.  It reads like a diary or a record of events that occurred -- but does not give you that clear picture of a world that's the same world you live in, but different. 

Father vs. Daughters over a conflict that is rampant in today's world would produce that character-arc without the "contrived" effect. 

Just look at all the Paranormal Romance on the shelves, the fantasy on your TV screen.  Magic vs Mundanity is the core of Harry Potter, etc.  It's a hotter commercial topic than feminism, but actually does have its roots in feminism and many related societal concerns. 

What if, at his death, the Daughters, steeped in the paranormal, finally understood Rashi's response to the mystical and changed their minds completely about incorporating the mystical into life?

Of course, to achieve that as a reader-awakening the writer would have to understand Rashi's objections, all the counter-arguments that convince the girls, and finally the one argument Rashi might have left in an unpublished text that would change the girls' minds.  To do that, the writer would have to be able to think like Rashi.  May as well try to think like Yoda or Gandalf. 

What if, after Rashi's death, the daughters then expunged all trace of any mystical activities they had participated in during his life and taught their children to turn from mysticism?

What if that's why the Kabbalistic writings don't appear for a few more centuries?

It would be a rewrite of history, complete with cover-up, that would allow for:

a) Character Arcs
b) story
c) plot
d) a reader's journey through what it means to be Jewish and female
e) suspension of disbelief
f) Poetic Justice via karmic, paranormal, highly improbable event sequences

The list of points could go on and on. 

The author could not have achieved all that by "rewriting" these volumes.  It's a "toss it all away and start from scratch" situation.

An editor could not guide a writer through this kind of restructuring.  I don't know any editor who could even begin to explain explosive marketing potential in this concept to a writer who's stuck re-running the outworn feminist fight.  The books I want to read are not the books she wants to write.  She achieved her own objective and you can see the result in the comments on amazon. 

The difference I'm describing has to be generated on the conceptual level, the level of Idea that happens before the writer is conscious of the need to write that story.

So studying these novels can be of benefit to the student writer a few years before that writer is struck with the highly commercial Concept that will make or break their career.

Just in case you might be such a writer, read at least some of Anton's trilogy or something comparable.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg
For more on Gemara, check this out:

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Happy Candlemas

I almost forgot today is Candlemas, aka Groundhog Day. The liturgical churches traditionally celebrate February 2 as the festival of the presentation of the infant Jesus in the Temple. It's called Candlemas because in some regions the priest blessed the candles for the year on that day. In England there was a belief that Christmas greenery had to be taken down by February 2 or risk bad luck. So I am really early by waiting only until after Epiphany (January 6) to dismantle the tree! The same date was a major pagan Celtic festival. Many European cultures have legends about various animals emerging from their dens to check the weather on Candlemas. The American folklore of Groundhog Day comes from the Pennsylvania Dutch.

I still don't grok, though, why BAD weather on February 2 foretells GOOD weather with an early spring.


Emotion and Decision

I’ve been reading some of the works of celebrated animal behavior expert Temple Grandin, who, as you probably know, is autistic and believes her condition allows her a unique insight into the minds of nonhuman creatures. In ANIMALS IN TRANSLATION she mentions a psychological discovery that came as quite a revelation to me: It has been found that people who lack all capacity for emotion, for instance because of brain injury, can’t make decisions. Logical, rational weighing of alternatives isn’t enough. Emotionless people have no impetus to choose one course of action over another. I’m somewhat shocked because I’ve always assumed choice and will are independent of feelings. As one slogan of the Marriage Encounter program says, “Love is a decision.” Even at the occasional moments when you feel like wringing your significant other’s neck, you can choose to behave in a loving way.

So does this theory apply to aliens? Does it mean a completely emotionless character, such as Spock claims to be, couldn’t function? Of course, we know Vulcans aren’t truly devoid of emotion; they simply control it more thoroughly than most of us do. What about Data? Before he got his emotion chip, he made choices and decisions as if his mind corresponded to a human being’s in that respect. Would he actually be able to do so?

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt