The Magic of Words

Nancy J. Cohen

As I switch my gaze from the iPad where I am proofreading my next Marla Shore story to our bookshelf crammed with mystery novels, I marvel at how mere words on a page have the ability to transform into a mental image in our minds. In addition, those among us who have the gift of reading fiction can transport ourselves to any realm, time or place and put ourselves into any fictional role we desire.

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Not everyone is blessed with this ability. Those who read nonfiction or fashion magazines, for example, may lack this talent or deny it in themselves. It’s their personal preference not to read fiction but it’s also their loss. We possess a gift in being able to glimpse a page of words and fly away to another world in our imaginations. How does this happen? What transformation occurs in our brains to allow us to visualize scenes based on black type against a white page? Surely studies must have been done to show how this works. It never ceases to amaze me. I feel sorry for people who do not share my enjoyment in reading stories.

As this ability to transform words into images is a human trait, let’s admit that what each of us perceives is related to our personal lifespace. Lifespace is a concept I learned in nursing school and carried over to teaching writing. In character development, you take your main character and write her name in a circle on a piece of paper. Draw cartoon bubbles around her head. In these spaces, fill in what’s in your character’s mind at a given moment in time. What are her immediate concerns? Tasks to complete? Daily goals? That’s her lifespace. Do this for your protagonists and you’ll get inside their heads.

How you read words on a page and perceive them will differ from how I do it, because we each perceive the same scene from different viewpoints.

Here’s an example. “She strolled along the beach, head down, contemplating the seashells and damp weeds strewn across the sand. Her skirt blew in the breeze while a forlorn horn blasted from a ship headed out to sea. The ocean’s vastness swallowed a freighter’s silhouette against the darkening sky. Deep blue waters beckoned for her to shed her earthly concerns….”

What mood are you getting from this short piece? Are you feeling sad? At peace? Tempted to go skinny dipping? How you feel will be partly due to the words and the imagery they provoke and partly due to your own life experience and how you perceive the world.

I love reading stories. I want to share my passion, although I understand people’s reading tastes differ. But what wondrous worlds these other folks are missing. And what a wonder it is that we can take mere words on a page and use them to transcend to another universe. Wouldn’t you agree?

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A Horrible Thing I Saw The Other Day

@jamesscottbell

“I wasn’t trying to predict the future. I was trying to prevent it.” – Ray Bradbury on Fahrenheit 451

The other day I saw a horrible thing.
It wasn’t a traffic accident on the 101 Freeway, of which there are many on any given L.A. day.
It was not a wounded soldier or a bar fight or a new reality television show.
Nevertheless, what I saw twisted my stomach and made me groan for the future of our kind.
It was an otherwise lovely afternoon and I was walking along the sidewalks of Hollywood Boulevard. As usual it was awash in activity––people of all shapes, sizes, colors, tempers, faiths and costumes sauntering along the street of dreams.
As I am wont to do I was watching faces.
I love watching faces. Each one is a potential character or storyline.
I was content.
I was engaged.
And then I stopped, recoiling in horror.
Okay, it was only an inward recoil. But there it was, as real as the hardened gum on Dick Powell’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
A woman was pushing a stroller. In the stroller was a young child, a boy of perhaps two years.
The boy was holding a digital device. His head was down and his fingers tapped the screen like a mad reporter on deadline.
I thought: I have met dystopia and it is us.
In 1953 Ray Bradbury penned an essay for The Nation about science fiction. He began by describing a scene in his novella Fahrenheit 451 where the fireman comes home to find his wife in a virtual stupor, an earpiece attached to her head. She was not reading, for that was forbidden. Aural stimuli were being pumped into her docile brain.
For Ray Bradbury, that kind of passivity was one of the most awful scenarios imaginable.
Bradbury then recounted how he had been out for a stroll recently and saw a couple walking their dog. The woman held a transistor radio with an earpiece (back then, a rather ponderous and rare piece of equipment) plugged into her auditory canal.
The husband, Bradbury noted, might as well not have been there.
Bradbury expressed his astonishment that his prediction of a rather gloomy future was happening much faster than he supposed.
And this was the early 50s! What would the late, great RB think of any given restaurant today? Couples, trios, whole families sitting at the same table, heads bent over phones or tablets, hardly exchanging a word?
And now this, here on Hollywood Boulevard. Is this our future? Will it be made up of little boys and girls who had iPads in their strollers, now all grown up into humorless, unimaginative technocrats unable to engage the real world?
I remember feeling some of this same revulsion when I first saw a DVD player in a motorized vehicle. It was a desert night and I was driving back to L.A. after some event. I pulled up alongside a dark SUV and saw a small monitor playing a cartoon for the denizens of the back seat.
This was a night when the stars could be gazed upon in wonder and the mysteries of desert shadows might stir the imagination.
But not for the children in the car! For them the desert was a bright and colorful Looney Tune with a funny roadrunner and a rather frustrated coyote. 
I’m fearful. I fear that digitized babies are not engaging their world or training their imaginations. I fear they will grow up unable to engage a long-form piece of writing, let alone real people in actual, meaningful conversation.
Am I overreacting?
Let me throw it out there to you, Zoners. Am I engaged in the sort of fogey-ism that is a part of every generation?
Or, like Ray Bradbury, should we be truly alarmed?

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Putting A Book Down

Nancy J. Cohen

Do you ever put a book down if you’ve read a few chapters and can’t go farther? This rarely happens with me, but I can recall a couple of instances where I gave up. Normally, I’ll slog through and scan pages until the end, if the story holds any appeal at all. But sometimes it’s too tedious to continue and a waste of precious time. What are some of the reasons why we might stop reading? 
 
Too Many Characters
The book I’m reading now is one I really want to like. It’s science fiction with a strong female lead and starts off on a spaceship. I know her mission is about to go terribly wrong. The woman’s lover is an alien, and I can understand his race’s characteristics. But then we meet other crew members and a diplomatic contingent from another world. Numerous other races are introduced, and the author segues into multiple viewpoints. Now I’m getting lost. I can’t keep track of all the aliens with weird sounding names. If the story doesn’t focus on the protagonist and her human emotions, I may put this book aside.

My own first published novel employed multiple viewpoints and alien races. But since the story stayed mostly inside the heads of my hero/heroine and focused on their romance, the world building seemed to work. I won the HOLT Medallion Award with Circle of Light, so I wasn’t alone in my assessment.

Yet the current book I’m reading is just too confusing. I’m losing interest in the story because it’s too hard to keep the alien characters straight.

A mystery can have similar problems when too many suspects are introduced at the same time. I’ve been guilty of this myself, whether it is a dinner party or cocktail event or other affair which all of the suspects attend together. One chapter might contain a blast of characters, whereas the sleuth’s subsequent investigation focuses on one at a time. It’s hard to avoid this dilemma when all of the important characters appear together in a scene toward the book’s beginning.

Book Doesn’t Stand Alone
I picked up a book mid-series by a popular author whose work I wanted to read. The opening scenes left me totally lost. If you hadn’t read the previous books, you were clueless. A writer should never assume readers have followed along with her series. Each book should stand alone with enough explanations to cover previous subplots. On the other hand, this requires a delicate balance. You don’t want to bore your fans with repetitious material. Nor do you want to repeat what happened in previous installments unless it’s relevant to the current story.

Genre Lacks Appeal
I’ve judged contests where I have to read entries in a genre other than ones I prefer. I do my best to be fair, but if the story is peppered every paragraph with naughty words, for example, that’s going to turn me off. At that point, I’ll skim through the book. That’s why in my leisure reading choices, I stick to genres I know and love.

Story Meanders
Too many boring scenes where conversation acts as filler or the plot fails to advance will make me lose interest. Here I might skip ahead to get to the scenes where something happens.

Incomprehensible Language
If I am reading science fiction or fantasy and the world building includes too many made up words, I might get lost and lose interest. Every other noun doesn’t have to sound futuristic. Ditto for historical novels where the dialects are so strong as to be annoying.

Unlikeable Characters
I’ll rarely give up on a book because I don’t like the characters. These stories I might skim through to see if there’s a redeeming factor. But if I really don’t like the people, that might be cause to put the book down.

As a writer, keep these points in mind so you don’t make the same mistakes in your work. No doubt we’re all guilty to some extent, but try to avoid these pitfalls whenever possible.

So what are some reasons why you might not continue reading a story?

 

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Readers at Sea

I just came from the Florida Romance Writers cruise conference aboard the Liberty of the Seas. For a full report and photos, check my personal blog later in the week: http://nancyjcohen.wordpress.com

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What I want to talk about here are the readers onboard. In this era of electronic games, apps, and programs, it’s heartening to see people lying on lounge chairs and reading books. Some perused print editions and others had iPads or Kindles or other devices. No matter the method of delivery—what counts was the proliferation of readers out there.

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When people do have leisure time, many folks still choose to pick up a book. That makes me, a writer, feel good about the world. Despite the doomsday predictions and the bookstore closings, people are still interested in storytelling. The method of delivery may be evolving, but the love of fiction remains.

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This observation was reinforced during a booksigning event we had on board. It was held with ten authors in a dining room and was advertised in the daily newsletter. As a result of the notice, readers flocked into our venue and left with stacks of books. I’d only brought 12 copies of Killer Knots, my cruise ship mystery, and I sold out. Imagine! I did better here than at most other conferences. And had I brought along a few of my romances, I bet I’d have sold those too.

NanRoz

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Charlaine

The picture above shows our charming keynote speaker, Charlaine Harris, author of the Sookie Stackhouse novels that are the basis for the True Blood TV series.

I’m hoping that this enthusiastic passenger response will prompt RCCL to welcome such an event again. Their gift shop personnel sold the books and the cruise line took a percentage, so it’s to their benefit to repeat the experience. The readers are out there, it’s just a matter of connecting with them.

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When you’re on vacation, do you check out the pool area to see what people are reading? Have you ever seen someone reading YOUR book?

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Reading Fiction in Schools

Nancy J. Cohen

Recently I heard that the new core curriculum in schools is going to require 70% of reading assignments be based on non-fiction. I don’t know if this is true or not, as a quick search didn’t provide me with any further information. Nor do I know the grade level for which this would apply. However, it’s a scary thought.

Schools have already stopped requiring students from learning cursive writing. Now they are discarding literature as well?

I’ve always felt education should include popular fiction, in addition to the classics. Let kids choose fun and entertaining books to read, and you might create long-term fans. After all, the commercial fiction of today could become the classics of tomorrow. And look what Harry Potter did for kids’ reading habits. Thanks to that series, a whole generation might have been hooked on reading novels. We need more successes like this one if we are to inspire children to read.

Rather than a wordy tome or dry biography, give them a ghost story or vampire tale or a mystery. Engage their senses with wonder like we were engaged reading Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys. Otherwise, where’s the fun? And if an activity isn’t fun for kids, then it’s competing with online sites, games, movies and TV shows that provide easier entertainment.

Having children read a work of fiction and then analyze its components can encourage creative and analytic thinking. Without this benefit, will human imagination still range to other stars, to lands far away, and to adventures beyond the mundane? Or will these same imaginations be stifled because works of fiction were denied them, and they were forced to read boring texts that killed their interest in reading?

So is this true, and if so, how do you feel about it?

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The Reinvention of the Library

By Joe Moore

Dylan said, “The times they are a changin’.”, and it’s true in so many areas of our lives. An obvious example is analyzing the demographics of the recent presidential election and realizing that 20th Century political strategies don’t work in the 21st Century. But beyond politics, there are many other changes taking place, particularly in the publishing industry with the rapid growth of electronic books.

BranchPhotoNOSo in this age of digital publishing, how will the community library adapt and survive?

Some, like the ones in my South Florida region are reinventing themselves with a solid plan for keeping their doors open. Libraries still have millions of books to lend, but what some are doing, and all need to consider, is to turn themselves into active community centers. They need to expand book-lending into a wide variety of community services and functions from helping with job searches to offering classes in a wide variety of activities for all ages. Getting bodies in the door and becoming places to socialize are the keys.

BranchPhotoNO1In my community of Coral Springs, among teaching dance and cooking lessons, and how to use Craig’s List, the library system offers a smart phone app that helps patrons learn more than 30 languages.

Because of the expanded features, local libraries are defying dire predictions of death in the digital age and are now busier than any time in their history. Statistics show that fewer than half of the library’s transactions involve the checking out of a printed book. Patrons are downloading e-BranchPhotoNO2books, audiobooks and music through the library’s online sites.

The use of the library’s cybercafés and free WiFi is exploding. Now patrons can borrow DVDs, e-book readers and iPads. Their popularity is evident with long waiting lists for each. There is an abundance of online classes including foreign language courses and arts and crafts.

The goal as stated by so many library managers is to let the public know that they’re about more than just books. The main library in the county has a first-floor lounge with 56 computers available for their patrons, many struggling with the economy. With many out of work, they no longer have Internet access. That’s where the library comes in. Advice and classes in resume writing, interview techniques and how to search want ads are basic features of the reinvented library.

The times are changing for the better with libraries becoming less of a dusty, silent reading room to an active, busy community hub; a fun and useful place for everyone.

How about the libraries in your community. Are they adapting or struggling? And even more interesting, when was the last time you visited your local library.

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THE BLADE, coming February, 2013 from Sholes & Moore
"Full-throttle thriller writing." — David Morrell
"Sholes & Moore deliver razor-edge suspense." — Lisa Gardner

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Joining the Revolution

I’ve joined the electronic revolution and purchased an iPhone. Having been resistant for some time, I could no longer avoid the temptation of having the social networks at my fingertips, cool apps to explore, email at the tap of a button, and a personal calendar on hand. Now I can relieve my purse of my pocket-sized appointment book and my emergency Sudoku pad. No longer will I have to fumble for someone’s phone number or wish I could send a photo directly to Facebook. I can do all of these things and more.

And therein rests the problem. The iPhone, like its larger cousin the iPad, is in itself a complete source of entertainment. Miss a favorite TV show? Watch it on your device. Need to look up the nearest pizza palace? Ask Siri. Need to kill time at the doctor’s office? Read a book on iBooks. Or better yet, play a game of Solitaire.

No wonder people’s attention spans are decreasing. It makes me worry for the future of reading. Who will be able to concentrate on finishing an entire novel when so many other activities require less effort?

Thank goodness for teen fiction that captures the interest of our youth and perhaps spurs them on to develop a lifelong reading habit. Because once the older generation who gobbles up our stories in print form dies off, who will be left? Consumers who expect their reading material to arrive in the form of daily excerpts? Will the art of storytelling devolve into single page entries? How can we make reading more attractive to the younger set to compete with iTunes?

Storytelling will always be part of our psyche even if the means of delivery evolves. But as a novelist, I am concerned for the future of our art. Can those of us trained to write lengthy works adapt to the changing marketplace? What if we have no choice? Do we want to write shorter, compelling, quicker prose? Can we compete with smartphones and tablets, or must we join the revolution and change our techniques to suit them? 

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My White Whale

by Michelle Gagnon



There was an interesting post on Slate this week entitled, “Overrated: Authors, critics, and editors on ‘great books’ that aren’t all that great.

The article got me thinking about which stories endure, which eventually fall by the wayside, and why. In a world where people now fit their innermost thoughts into 140 characters or less (counting spaces), lengthy descriptive passages such as those found in TESS OF THE D’URBERVILLES probably strike the modern reader as tedious, while back when it was first published, that type of writing was the norm. It’s also interesting to see that some of the people quoted cited both GRAVITY’S RAINBOW and Joyce’s ULYSSES as being overrated, but for very different reasons.

I’ve read a decent number of the canonical ‘great books,’ and enjoyed most of them (including TESS, although I’m not generally a big Hardy fan).

But there’s one that has become my own personal white whale: appropriately enough, MOBY DICK. It’s one of the few books that I’ve never finished, despite gritting my teeth and picking it up a half dozen times. I always enjoy the beginning, and sweep through the first twenty chapters.

Then I hit Chapter 32: Cetology, and my eyes glaze over. I have yet to make it through Ishmael’s attempts to classify whales scientifically. I read a page or so, then set the book down. One thing leads to another, and MD inevitably ends up back at the bottom of my TBR pile. I suppose I could always just skip the chapter, but I’ve never done that with a book before and something inside me balks at the thought.

Plus, I honestly have a fairly limited tolerance for sea shanties.

Yet this is supposed to be one of, if not the, “Great American Novels.” So am I really missing out by not finishing? Or has Melville passed his expiration date? How relevant are the classics to our contemporary lives now? Are some so outmoded they no longer qualify as great literature? More importantly, are certain books lauded as great simply because they’ve managed to survive the tests of time?

In the article, Elif Batuman points out that, “the right book has to reach you at the right time, and no person can be reached by every book.”

I love that observation. Sometimes I wonder if I’d still enjoy Milan Kundera as much if I read him now, or if Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 YEARS OF SOLITUDE would make such an impression. I rarely go back and re-read books- there are simply too many amazing new stories coming out every week.

So today’s question is this: which great book let you down?


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