Author Interview — Trisha J. Wooldridge

One by one, you’re getting acquainted with the authors whose stories appear in the anthology Dark Luminous Wings. Visiting us today is writer and editor Trisha J. Wooldridge.

Trisha J. Wooldridge writes grown-up horror short stories and weird poetry for anthologies and magazines—some even winning awards! Under her business, A Novel Friend, she’s edited over fifty novels; written over a hundred articles on food, drink, entertainment, horses, music, and writing for over a dozen different publications; designed and written three online college classes; copy edited the MMORPG Dungeons & Dragons Stormreach; edited two geeky anthologies; and has become the events coordinator and consignment manager for Annie’s Book Stop of Worcester. Because she is masochistic when it comes to time management, she created the child-friendly persona of T.J. Wooldridge and published three scary children’s novels, as well as a poem in The Jimmy Fund charity anthology Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep. Her recent publications also include two novellas, “Tea with Mr. Fuzzypants” and “Mirror of Hearts.” You can find her most recent work in the 2017 anthologies Gothic Fantasy Supernatural Horror, Dark Luminous Wings, and the collector’s book of the Blackstone Valley Artists Association 2017 Art and Poetry Showcase.

Onward, to the interview:

Poseidon’s Scribe: How did you get started writing? What prompted you?

Trisha J. Wooldridge: I was always a reader, and when I got started with vocabulary words in school, I realized that I, too, could weave the magic I’d found in books! Vocabulary sentence days and homework were my favorite things; I’d rush home to share my creations with my parents.  When I was 11 or so, I started writing fan fiction (I didn’t know “fan fiction” was a thing at a time) for stuff like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in notebooks, certain—certain!—I would write the first novelization of the comics and cartoon season. Later, I started playing with mashups of my versions of Narnia being visited by the science-minded folk in Madeleine L’Engle’s time series. By the time I hit high school, I was chronicling the adventures of our Dungeons and Dragons characters in story form and passing those out each week…as well as working on an interstellar adventure along the lines of Joanna Russ’s Adventures of Alyx.

 

P.S.: What other authors influenced your writing, and what are a few of your favorite books?

T.J.W.: As mentioned above, I was a huge fan of the Chronicles of Narnia and would read anything I could get my hands on by Madeleine L’Engle.  I was also a massive fan of the DragonLance novels by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, as well as the Drizzt Do’Urden novels by R.A. Salvatore and the Daughter of the Drow series by Elaine Cunningham.  If there were dragons, space ships, monsters, unicorns (especially unicorns!) involved, I wanted to read it.

I also ended up discovering horror as a genre… I loved Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, along with the Goosebumps, Fear Street, and all the teens-in-horrific-peril tales by Christopher Pike that were popular in the 90s.  And, of course, Stephen King.

I also have always loved comics. Particularly the X-Men ones in my youth—because who doesn’t want cool superpowers? As I grew older, though, I discovered the horror and dark fantasy comics, like The Sandman by Neil Gaiman—which led me to devouring everything Gaiman has done, from comics to poetry to children’s books to novels.

 

P.S.: You’ve written science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Which do you consider your primary genre and how did you become interested in it?

T.J.W.: I also do poetry! Though, more than half the poetry falls under the speculative umbrella, too—and much of it is also story-poems with plot and character development. I would say the majority of my prose and a large portion of my poetry, falls under “dark fantasy.” There are almost always fantastical elements (or mundane elements disguised as / mistaken for fantastical), and I am drawn to explore the things that frighten me. I also believe that in exploring the darker parts of life and humanity, the brighter parts end up shining even more—so it is through the most painful and frightening experiences that a character can find and potentially choose to be their best person.

I became interested in such a wide variety of themes, styles, and genres because I read widely. I read widely not only because I just loved stories—but they were a safe place from bullies and awful people. So, I always knew the world was not a safe place, that people were complicated mixes of good and evil, and magic was also a complex compound of literal power and metaphorical power. Thus, my books tend to weave all that together because they are a reflection of the real world, a commentary on the real world, a hope that more good than evil shines through in the world, and a safe place with which one can explore the world.

 

P.S.: Your short story “Cemetery Angels” appears in the recently-released anthology Dark Luminous Wings. Please tell us about that tale and its main character.

T.J.W.: I wrote “Cemetery Angels” a while ago when I was dealing with my father’s death a few years ago. It came from a story I remember as a child—though I don’t recall if it was an urban legend or an actual news story. There were some people, I vaguely remember “college kids”, who were going to cemeteries, breaking into cars while family was visiting the graves, and stealing purses and valuables. I also remember a discussion about locking doors in cemeteries. My mom, actually, was very similar to the mom in the story when it comes for locking doors everywhere. However, when I had taken my mother to visit my father’s grave, she asked me why I’d locked the car in a cemetery. That story had stuck in my mind as something she’d told me, so I was shocked she’d asked, and that exchange stuck in my head for a while, too.

Now, the cemetery where my father (and most of my mother’s family) is buried is an actual Polish Catholic cemetery in Western Massachusetts—and it is a gorgeous cemetery. All of the statues I reference, all of the beautiful stone angels and saints are real (though not necessarily on all my family’s monuments).  And we did visit my mother’s grandparents, and my grandmother, with some frequency as I was growing up—and it was a beautiful ritual (albeit boring for a child who could say the entire “Our Father” and “Hail Mary” in as many breaths).  So, the two main characters are both strongly drawn from my life and my family—particularly my mom, who I wouldn’t doubt would weaponize her oversized purse against anyone threatening her family. And is a very practical person.

 

P.S.: You also work as an editor, a member of that blue-penciled breed that writers love to hate. What is it like being on both sides of that fence?

T.J.W.: I love editing. It works a different side of my brain, and I learn a lot about my own writing by editing. But, moreso, I love asking questions and challenging authors to make their works the best they can be. Being an editor is like someone hiring you to help them with their child—and I say that having also worked as a nanny and tutor in my life.  You grow to love that child and you want the best for them, but you also have the distance of the work not being your child, so you can be more objective and ask some very hard questions that the author might not see because they have that special relationship with that work.

Mind you, I haven’t been looking or advertising for clients for a few years. The authors I work with are authors I have a relationship with or referrals from authors I’ve worked with over several books and sometimes several series. Still, when I send back one of their manuscripts marked back up, my greatest fear is “Oh, I hope this isn’t the round of edits where they discover they actually hate me!” It was a relief, this fall, when an editor who’d worked on one of my novels sent me an email asking a similar question because I’d been away and hadn’t let her know I’d received her notes. She’d done a wonderful job tearing my ms apart, and it was a tough edit—which was perfect, so I told her so when I got back and looked at her notes. So, we editors really don’t want you to hate us, please?

 

P.S.: Do you think your experiences as an editor have helped your writing?

T.J.W.: Absolutely. Without a question. Before I was an editor, I was also a writing tutor—and that also was a massive learning experience when it comes to writing. Part of being a tutor, which is what I bring to my editing clients, is that you also want to nurture the writer. It’s just as important to point out what works as what doesn’t work.  You want your student or your client to walk away from the experience inspired to make their work stronger.

 

P.S.: You attend a number of science fiction, fantasy, and horror conventions. What do you enjoy about those, and where can readers meet you next?

T.J.W.: I am a regular attendee (if not panelist or vendor) at Arisia, Boskone, Conbust, Necon, DragonCon, and Rock and Shock every year. I’m usually a panelist or running a workshop or three at any one of those conventions, and you can often find me at either a Broad Universe or a New England Horror Writers table at most. This year, you’ll also find me at StokerCon, very likely at the NESCBWI (New England Society of Children’s Writers & Illustrators) Conference, possibly at ReaderCon, and I’m not sure what else yet.

What I enjoy about these… Goodness! So much! I started out going as a “student,” because I find panels and workshops offered very educational and I’m a believer of life-long pursuit of learning. Then I started reading my work at them and discovered I love performing and reading aloud. As I went to more, I made friends at these conventions with whom I stay in contact virtually, but only get to hug in-person at these events. Many of these friends have become very dear to me. After that, I started working tables and found I enjoyed meeting people and promoting my new friends’ and colleagues’ books—and making money selling stuff I was in! And after that, I started getting invited to be on panels and to run workshops—and I do love teaching and talking and educating. I could give back to the communities that have given so much to me!

And those don’t even include the very special moments, like sitting on the hallway floor with Lois McMaster Bujold and talking about feminism! Or hanging out with Jim Butcher after moderating a packed urban fantasy panel with him! Or randomly running into Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer after Gaiman won a Shirley Jackson award! Or snickering alongside Jane Yolen about the grammar and editing issues that make both of us cringe!

 

P.S.: Tell us about the Broad Universe organization and your involvement in it.

T.J.W.: Broad Universe is an international non-profit dedicated to supporting, promoting, and celebrating women creators in science fiction, fantasy, horror, and everything in between.  I joined after hearing about it at my second DragonCon, ended up becoming the coordinator for readings and events, moved on to become president, and count the organization as one of the main reasons I’ve been able to make a profession out of my writing and my geekery. I had my first publication with an editor I got to chat with through Broad Universe. It was my friend, and president-before-me, Phoebe Wray, who pushed me to start reading aloud even before I had published anything. Other members, Inanna Arthen and Justine Graykin, taught me about performing and reading aloud. And even more members gave me confidence to submit work, to sell my work, and to keep pushing myself to achieve my dreams of writing professionally. I started editing through friendships I’d forged among Broads, and I made my connections at conventions and with the New England Horror Writers through Broads. Honestly, I wouldn’t be here today without the lessons, connections, and experience I’ve had through Broad Universe.

 

P.S.: Since you first began writing, how has your writing evolved in terms of style, theme, genre, etc.?

T.J.W.: I distinctly remember in grammar school making a mistake on one of those vocabulary exercises I mentioned where I crafted a sentence where “I through a ball” and my mom corrected me… so I’m fairly sure I’ve gotten better since then.

In terms of style, theme, genre, etc…. That’s tough. I’ve probably gotten darker over the years. Thanks to social media, the ease of access for news, the more information we get, I see a lot more darkness. But I also see hope having to shine brighter—so stories of people getting through difficult and dark times, or not, just happen in my head.  So, there is more horror and darkness; and that horror and darkness are more embedded in real life and current social issues.

I’ve also gotten better about tightening my writing. There is still a lot of work to do, but I used to have to cut sometimes 30-40% of a manuscript for it to not be “wordy” and “redundant”. Now it’s more like 20% average, sometimes even less!

As I’ve written more poetry, I also feel I’m more aware of rhythm in my sentence structure, regardless of how I write. And that, also, has helped me with making each word and sentence work harder.

I still tend to lean toward fantasy, fantastical, and magical stories, but I’ve gotten more comfortable in grounding myself in reality and research rather than trusting myself to “make it up,” and I think that makes for a better story, too.

 

P.S.: What is your current work in progress? Would you mind telling us a little about it?

T.J.W.: I usually have five or six WIPs going at once, so I’ll just chat about a few.

Novelwise, I’m working on a children’s book (middle grade) called The Circus Under the Bed. I wrote that last NaNoWriMo (and into January and February following), and now am working on beta edits to clean it up for submission. The story is about the fragments of dreams and nightmares, Figments, that each of us creates when we are startled awake. These Figments create communities traveling from one Under the Bed to another Under the Bed, rescuing the little beings that hide there. Of course, they are terrified of the Dreamers who create them—after all, most are born from those fears!—so when one Figment gets captured by a Dreamer who is also the school bully, its adopted family must leave the Circus’s sanctuary to go on an impossible rescue mission. The poem I wrote to help me with worldbuilding (because, of course, my brain said that I needed to write poetry to go with this prose!) was actually published in Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep, a charity anthology for The Jimmy Fund put out by Necon Ebooks.

I’m also working on a novella inspired by Pole to Pole’s In a Cat’s Eye anthology. It ended up being a novella, so it didn’t work…but I love this story just the same. It takes a look at the dark underbelly of breeding show animals by launching into a future where we have special cat shows for genetically modified cats that score for intelligence as well as appearance. One might ask what could go wrong when we make intelligent designer cats and a whole culture around breeding intelligent designer cats… and I explore a few such things. I have notes from my writers group that are several months old that I need to attend to, and then I’ll be looking for a home for it.

I’m also tinkering with an alien invasion novel with an Outlander flavor, set in Scotland with impossible romantic relationships, a dragon / salamander short story, a poetry collection, and going through my many other unfinished projects to see what is viable to work on for 2018.

 

Poseidon’s Scribe: What advice can you offer aspiring writers?

Trisha J. Wooldridge: One thing I’ve seen a lot of aspiring writers do is self-publish their very first novel (or submit it to me while I was an acquiring editor for a mid-sized press)—and 99.9% of the time it was a huge mess.  Not only would a piece need serious editing, but the author needed to learn more on writing craft. Mind you, I fully support all routes to publishing, from self and independent publishing to traditional and “Big Five” contracts. But whether it’s an author with their self-pubbed first novel or an author who is submitting their first novel to a publisher, I ask, “Are you sure it is ready?”

This may be an unpopular opinion or piece of advice, but don’t rush to publish.  Take time to hone your craft. Then take time to learn the business of publishing. But most of all, learn about the craft of writing—not just the fiction part, but the writing you’ll use to market the book. Learn about sales writing, journalistic writing, business writing. Even poetry. All of that helps. And it’s perfectly okay to write things that won’t get published. Think of how many times an Olympic medalist has run a track, swam a lap, practiced a routine. With writing, we need to get our practice time in; we need to allow ourselves to write stories, novels, poetry, etc. that might not get published and be all right with that. By rushing to publish our practice work, we do ourselves a disservice and we do readers a disservice.  Take the time to practice and learn.

 

Thank you very much, Trisha. Great answers, and very helpful advice. Readers can keep up with all things Trisha at her two Facebook pages, her personal one and her author page. Also check out her website and get to know her on Twitter.

Poseidon’s Scribe

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Author Interview — James Slater

Imagine discovering a fellow fiction writer at the place where you work. You find someone who, like you, works a day job in your building but authors books on the side. That happened to me recently, and I just had to interview him.

James Slater works at the Washington Navy Yard. He authored the short stories Tuck, Bishop Takes Night, and Ten Bucks, each published in book form. Most recently, he’s written a science fiction novel, Claustrom, the first book in a planned trilogy.

Let’s get to the interview:

Poseidon’s Scribe: Who are some of your influences? What are a few of your favorite books?

James Slater: When I was in 3rd grade, my family moved out of the city to a 4-acre property in the country in Western Washington state. It was a beautiful place, but both to my benefit and my disappointment, we had no TV signal there. I filled my spare time with reading and music, and the talents I developed as a result have served me throughout my life.

I guess I’ve always been drawn to mystery and adventure. Treasure Island; 20,000 Leagues under the Sea; and Tom Sawyer/Huckleberry Finn were all books I read more than once. When I was in elementary school, I read all the Hardy Boys books the library had on the shelf. Oh, and can’t forget to mention Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie. I was quite intrigued by The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Now, I didn’t read that one again, and I won’t spoil it, but once you understand the twist, the novelty is gone. I was quite enamored with Catch 22. More recently, The Patrick O’Brian Master and Commander series and Lee Child’s Reacher books became obsessions.

P.S.: How did you come to love science fiction?

J.S.: If I remember correctly, my first science-fiction-esqe books were the Chronicles of Narnia. The fantasy of other worlds and other dimensions tickled something inside my mind. Then I read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. And I couldn’t put it down. I think that’s the series that hooked me. I began to scan the library shelves for sci-fi authors and read everything they had to offer. I pretty much always had a book with me. The amazing possibilities of space travel fascinated me. We’d put a man on the moon, and I was sure amazing breakthroughs were just around the corner.

P.S.:    What are the easiest, and the most difficult, aspects of writing for you?

J.S.: The easiest thing to do for me is just to write. On the days that I’ve decided to write, I always set a goal of writing 500 words, and once I start, I’ve never not achieved that goal. Often I double and triple that in a day. Now, the most difficult thing is closely related. And that’s getting started. It’s like a train. Once I’ve stopped, it really takes me tremendous energy to get started again. I struggle to budge that train, and usually my activities at work and home have an impact. I only have a finite amount of mental energy, and if I’m writing appraisals or if we’re in the market for a new home (both turned out to be giant energy sinks), my writing batteries can’t come up with the power to move that train an inch. But once I start and rediscover my writing muses, it’s like the story takes on its own life–and me with it. I’m more like a transcriptionist, struggling to keep up with the storyline.

P.S.:    Please describe your novel, Claustrom. What inspired you to write it?

J.S.: Sure. I like to call it a science fiction adventure. It’s set at the dawn of the third millennium and tells the story of three people, an accountant a security specialist and an heir to a mining fortune, who catch a ride back to Earth from a new high-tech construction project, New Manhattan. They run into some trouble and have to put down on the hostile surface of the prison planet, Claustrom. Each of them has talents and secrets, but only by working together, pooling their knowledge and talents, can they hope to make it home. I took the name from its Latin origins meaning a gate or an enclosure (think of a church’s Cloister) and modified it incidentally as might happen over time, like words that evolve over the centuries. In the end, I liked the subtle suggestion within the name of both a “claw” and a “storm.”

P.S.:    I understand Claustrom is Book 1 of an intended trilogy. When can your readers expect to see the second book?

J.S.: I’m about 80 percent done now with book two. I had intended this one to be a novella, a short prequel project started last November that would fill in some of the backstory of our Claustrom characters. It was supposed to be done by the end of November, but at the end of the month, the train was rolling. I couldn’t stop it, so I went with it. Turns out, it will be a full novel, so I’m shooting for its release in early 2018. So much for the Trilogy, eh? Moving on now to embrace the Tetralogy. I’ve outlined the better part of book three, the sequel to Claustrom, which will introduce the final book in the series. I’ve not outlined that yet and only have a rough idea of how that will play out, but I’m really looking forward to getting started on book three. The current working title is Midway.

P.S.: Where do you get the ideas for your stories?

J.S.: Hmmm. Interesting question. First, I guess I have a pretty vivid imagination. I love to entertain the fantasy of the impossible. Or, at least, the impossible as compared to what we currently perceive as reality. See what I did there? What if I were independently wealthy? What if aliens did land on Earth? What if the Earth is a rest stop on some galactic highway? Second, as I go through my day and the half of my brain that’s filling in plot holes and coming up with twists is aware and looking for new ideas. Here’s an example. One of my co-workers is from Texas, and he was telling a story about wild cougars. So my brain asks, night there not be a giant cat-like creature on a distant planet? Why not? And maybe it has a hunger–you know, for people. So I wrote it in. But check it out. That’s not the end of the story. I go to a writer’s conference, and I’m talking to author Reed Farrell Coleman, a guy who knows a thing or two about rough crime neighborhoods. So he tells me about a crime organization in New York that used a big caged cat as part of their attitude adjustment strategy for those who owed them money. Now, the book was already done by this time, so I’d already envisioned and completed that type of a similar scene. Guess it just goes to show you. Just because you made it up, doesn’t mean that someone hasn’t thought of it–or tried it before. Lots of science fiction has already become reality.

P.S.: In what way is your fiction different from that of other authors in your genre?

J.S.: I think the thing I love most about good stories, especially mysteries, is that there’s always something hidden. The parts almost make sense for a logical assessment of what has happened, but the protagonist, for some reason, doesn’t believe it. Sometimes it’s even just a single element. At the point where the secret is unveiled, the story and the stakes shift. Doyle and Christie were masters of this. Nothing makes sense until the end, and then it all falls into place. So, in addition to being an adventure, I like to have a puzzle to for the protagonist to solve. I love to read Lee Child because his protagonist, as smart and as powerful as he is, usually jumps to the wrong conclusion until he puts it all together for the finale. If the reader has figured it out by the end of the first act, the author has cheated everyone, including himself.

P.S.:    Both you and Poseidon’s Scribe have day jobs at the Washington Navy Yard, and write fiction during your commute to and from work. What are the advantages and disadvantages of that writing process?

J.S.: I think the real advantage is that it gives me an hour or two each day without interruption to read, write, edit and plan. And when I’m on, it works really well. I finished my first book in seven months this way. I guess the real disadvantage is that with other personal, family and career projects and thoughts and emotions, I can easily either get distracted or exhausted. At the end of a day, and I’m on my way home, I may look at my laptop and think that I really want to log some words, but my creative fuel is already spent. Now, I know if I can get past the first few minutes, the writing will reach out and engulf me, but some days I need to read or to listen. Other days, I put on headphones and turn nothing on. Silence, like sleep, is a great rejuvenator for me. Then I’m looking for inspiration and creating energy, not depleting it.

P.S.: On your website, you mention that the Washington Navy Yard shooting in September 2013 influenced you toward becoming a published author. Please expand on the connection between that event and that decision.

J.S.: I think I always wanted to become an author. It was just that my vision of an author was someone who made a living by writing books and had nothing else to do. Now I do a good amount of writing in my current position and had always used the excuse that I’d written so much that I was too tired of writing to write. Looking back, I think that was probably my own code for, “I don’t know how.” I mean, I joked about putting people in my book when they’d do something odd or spectacular. Then the shooting. It affected a lot of people in a lot of different ways. For me, it brought me face-to-face with my own mortality. I realized that if I waited until I retired to start writing a book, I might never finish it. So I started reading. I read like a fiend for a year. Fiction and non-fiction. Some sci-fi; some mystery; some literature. In sci-fi, I wanted to see what I was up against. Amazon now gives you that sneak peak? So I started walking through the latest and greatest contributions to science fiction. The more I read, the more my confidence grew. Clearly there were greats to contend with. John Scalzi. James A. Corey–who is actually two authors–and Ernest Cline. I loved Ready Player One. Oh, and Andy Weir with The Martian. But on the whole, the genre was littered with trash. In my opinion anyway. And I could tell by reading the first chapter. So I realized, suddenly, that not only did I have the desire to write a book, I had limited time, and my talent was, at the very least, on par with other, more established writers in the genre. I think that realization made it possible.

Poseidon’s Scribe: What advice can you offer aspiring fiction writers?

James Slater: I think there are two things. To me, an aspiring fiction writer is someone with both writing talent and a vision. My assessment is that there are many folks out there who would sell the dream of becoming a writer and would do so through selling books about becoming an author. For those, I recommend an approach with a skeptical eye. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Lots of people can sell books. Few can write them.

That said, I think writers should dedicate a good bit of time to reading. If you don’t have time to read, you certainly don’t have time to write.

Second, follow the rules. Novels follow a really standard structure. Following this structure will help bound the project and serve as the first step in breaking the project down into manageable bites.

Third. Write. Follow your structure. Express your style. Don’t stop. Even if it’s just a few sentences or some ideas, keep the effort going. Do it on a regular basis. It will ebb and flow. That’s a normal part of the process. You’ll get distracted. You’ll get off track. You’ll get blocked. Join a writer’s group. Expect criticism and welcome it. It’s a different point of view. Value it, but don’t let it cripple you.

I guess the final piece of advice is not to psych yourself out. Writers often bump into great barriers of self-doubt. There’s a lot of trash out there passing as literature. But if you want to be a writer, you have to write and you have to publish. If you’re struggling to make your book perfect, think of yourself not as an author, but as a perfectionist. Writers write, so think up a great story. Write it. Publish it. Then do it again.

 

Thanks, James. Great answers, and I hope to see you around the building.

Interested readers don’t have to go to the Washington Navy Yard to learn more about James. Check out his website and his Facebook page.

Poseidon’s Scribe

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When and Where to Find Me at Chessiecon

You say you’ll be in the Baltimore, MD area during Thanksgiving weekend and you’re up for some SciFi excitement? Lucky you; you can meet lil’ ol’ me, Poseidon’s Scribe, at Chessiecon, a great science fiction convention running from November 24-26 at the Radisson North Baltimore Hotel.

  • On Friday at 3:00, I’ll moderate a panel titled “Is it Easier to Teach an English Major Science, or Teach a Science Major English?” about combating the fears people have about writing science fiction. I’ll be joined by panelists Michelle Markey Butler, Leslie Roy Carter, Nicole Jamison, and Valerie Mikles.
  • At 10:00 on Saturday, I’ll serve as a panelist for “Join the Mod Squad: Enhance Your Moderation Skills,” about how to serve as a moderator for panels at cons. The moderator will be Carl Cipra, and other panelists will be Don Sakers, Heather Rose Jones, and Annalee Flower Horne.
  • Saturday at 8:00 pm, I’ll participate in an Author Meet & Greet where we can chat; I’ll answer your questions and sign books. I’ll be there with other authors J.L. Gribble, Martin Wilsey, Steve Kozeniewski, Michelle D. Sonnier, and Andrew Hiller.
  • Finishing out the weekend, on Sunday at 11:15, I’ll read an excerpt from my science fiction artificial intelligence story “The Cats of Nerio-3” which appears in the anthology In a Cat’s Eye.

Go ahead—try to imagine a better weekend. I knew you couldn’t. I’ll see you at Chessiecon. In addition to super panels, workshops, art, and music, you can even meet—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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Is Life Too Short for Re-Reading?

Do you read the same book multiple times? If so, why, and what does that say about you?

With Dr. Carl Sagan’s help, I’ve made the point before that the human lifespan is too short to read all books ever written. You can’t hope to read a tiny sliver of a percentage of them all. Therefore, time spent re-reading a book is time not spent enjoying a book you’ve never read.

Re-reading a book is different from ordering the same meal at a restaurant or re-watching a favorite TV show or movie. Reading a book is a significant investment in time—many hours or days—repeating something you’ve already done.

At this point, you might ask, defensively, “So what? Since I can’t read them all, why not re-read a few I enjoy? And since it will take a few days, why not spend that time doing something I know I’ll like?”

Fair points. Also, I must say, you avid re-readers are in good company. Here are the thoughts of some famous authors on this topic:

  • “Each time you re-read you see or learn something new.” Ernest Hemingway
  • “There’s nothing wrong with reading a book you love over and over. When you do, the words get inside you, become a part of you, in a way that words in a book you’ve read only once can’t.” Gail Carson Levine
  • “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.” C.S. Lewis
  • “An unliterary man may be defined as one who reads books once only. . . . We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading.” C.S. Lewis
  • “No book is worth reading that isn’t worth re-reading.” Susan Sontag
  • “If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.” Oscar Wilde

Reddit has an interesting discussion of this topic. Commenters cited several different reasons to re-read. Some just found it comforting. A few re-read a favorite book during the same month every year, and associated that time of year with that book.

Over at Melissa’s Book World, Melissa says she falls in love with favorite books and their characters. If forced to choose between never starting a new book again or never re-reading a book again, she’d choose never to start a new one, since she couldn’t bear to part with her favorites.

Sara Jonsson came up with 10 good reasons that we re-read, including some interesting rationales like “the movie adaptation is coming out,” and “you have a test on that book tomorrow.”

I’ve noticed the experience of reading a paper or electronic book visually is different from listening to an audiobook. It still counts as re-reading, but the experience is different.

From my research, it appears the prime reason to re-read is the comfort it brings, the familiarity of the known. However, it’s not completely familiar. It’s like trying to go back to your childhood home again, or trying to dip your toe in the same river. You can’t. The experience is different. The book hasn’t changed, but you have.

In subsequent readings, you know what will happen. You won’t have that same sense of wonder, that same eagerness for the action to advance. You have time to relish the clever foreshadowing, the subtle ways the author set things up for the climax, the techniques the author used to draw you in to loving the main character. You couldn’t have noticed these things the first time.

The difference is most stark when decades separate the initial reading from the re-reading. You’ve likely forgotten a lot, so re-reading may repeat some of the joy of a first read. Also, you’ve matured significantly; your interests and outlook have changed. You might dislike a book you once enjoyed, and say you’ve outgrown it. Or you may enjoy other aspects, less concerned with plot and setting, and more with characters, style, and theme.

I’d say reading is important, even vital. If you feel the need to re-read on occasion to sustain your love for the reading experience, then go ahead and re-read, especially books by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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Be Positive about Negative Capability

As part of our shared journey through the realm of fiction writing, let’s explore a few rooms within a stately mansion belonging to the English romantic poet, John Keats. In particular, what did he mean by the term negative capability, and how does it relate to creative writing?

photo By William Hilton – National Portrait Gallery: NPG 194

Nearly two centuries ago, on December 21, 1817, Keats wrote a letter to his brothers where he mentioned negative capability:

“…at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason—Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.”

That may be confusing, but here’s what I think he means—If you want to be a great writer, be willing to:

  • delve into the essence of your characters (or objects, like a Grecian Urn),
  • shed your preconceived world-view,
  • abandon any search for meaning or the urge to fit things into a logical structure, and
  • accept any mysteries and ambiguities you find without trying to resolve them.

Keats praises Shakespeare for the Bard’s ability to show us his characters, through their speech and actions, as they would be, without the author’s heavy hand fitting everything into a coherent whole. Keats criticizes Samuel Coleridge for starting with a philosophical vision and fashioning poetic characters to illustrate that vision.

Why did Keats call this approach ‘negative capability?’ The Wikipedia entry offers an electrical explanation. However, I believe Keats was saying that a true poet should negate her own capability (to make judgements; detect patterns; deduce from, or induce to, general principles) and instead immerse herself in the object of study and absorb all that is there, with all its contradictions and inconsistencies.

For those of you still stuck on the word ‘Penetralium’ in Keats’ letter, let me digress a moment. The word refers to a building’s innermost part, like a temple’s sanctuary. By extension, it can mean the secret inner essence of a person—the soul. Keats thought in terms of rooms of the mind, as illustrated by a letter he wrote, which is cited in the Wikipedia article: “I compare human life to a large Mansion of Many Apartments…”

For another description of negative capability, see this video with author Julie Burstein, especially from 1:00 to 1:25. Also, check out this post at Keats’ Kingdom, and this one by Dr. Philip Irving Mitchell of Dallas Baptist University.

As for me, I take a nuanced view of negative capability, as it regards creative writing. I agree writers should empathize with their characters, to know them as directly as possible. That keeps all the characters from seeming to be slight variations of the author. I also concur writers should embrace “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts.” The worldview of any character and even the universe of the story itself don’t have to fit neatly together in every detail. The writer should approach the characters and story with an open mind, allowing things to develop as they would in their world, not necessarily in step with the worldview of the writer.

But where Keats asserts “the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration,” I suggest this applies to the story as a whole, not just one character. Characters are not works of art for a writer to portray, however empathetically, in isolation. They are part of a greater whole, the story, and that whole—with its plot, themes, style, setting, and characters—is the thing the writer must strive to optimize for reader enjoyment.

I hope you liked our visit to this mansion of John Keats’ mind. It’s time to continue with the rest of the tour, led by your literary tour guide—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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