My Book for a Desert Island

Success is as dangerous as failure.
Hope is as hollow as fear.

–Lao-Tzu

Way back in 1972 I found myself in a spiritual and psychological desert of sorts, at odds with everyone and everything around me and uncertain as to what direction, if any, I should take. It was at that precise moment that, like Howard Carter entering Tutankhamun’s tomb, I stumbled onto the wisdom of the East. For a young woman who had grown up in a south-Louisiana, French-Catholic family, the discovery of such arcane philosophies as Taoism and Zen marked a major shift in my life, expanding my worldview as nothing else before or since. For me, the planet and its far-ranging cultural history unexpectedly became larger than I ever had imagined. Central to this turning point was the Tao Te Ching, a little book of sparely-written, oftentimes cryptic Chinese mysticism that reads like poetry.

Over the years I have dipped into it when I’ve needed to be reminded of its lessons; ignored it when tempted to flatter myself that I’ve outgrown it; and returned to its allure when the realization has flashed into my mind, that it is much grander than my laughable inability to comprehend its challenging secrets. I have argued with it, been tempted to rip it to shreds, and literally thrown it across the room in frustration. And yet…and yet…

There are books that I enjoy, some that have taught me a lot and a few I treasure, but Lao-Tzu’s ancient, humble lessons lie within the pages of the last book I’ll ever really need.

Painting With Words

Many years ago when I was a university undergraduate, one of my roommates happened to be an art student.  Living in an apartment littered with paintbrushes, canvasses and other paraphenalia gave me an up-close appreciation of how an artist actually works, that was miles apart from the detached overview of humanity’s long progression through the visual arts that I learned from my art history classes.

One important, foundational idea that I soon recognized as relevant to my creative writing, was that not all of an artist’s subjects require the same approach and tools, but are dependent upon what meaning she is trying to communicate.   Sometimes she uses oils, sometimes acrylics or chalk or charcoal.   A complex subject might require a lot of detail and color, while something simple can be depicted with a few judiciously applied strokes.   The artist’s creative vision, what he intends to convey to the viewer, and how effectively that is achieved, are subject to the style he uses and the tools he implements.

Fiction is like that, too.  Just as all stories are different — some are innately novels, others short stories or novellas, still others screenplays — their successful executions require techniques specifically tailored to their uniquely individual natures.

For example, my novel about Joan of Arc, An Army of Angels, is a vast, sweeping epic filled with color and elaborate detail, a real cast-of-thousands historical novel on the scale of a vintage Cecil B. deMille movie.  The subject required nothing less, so that was the approach I took.  On the other hand, V-Squad, a character-driven vampire adventure set during World War II, is lighter in tone, evocative rather than painstakingly detailed, and much, much shorter.  Given its setting in the recent past and the relative familiarity of that time to the contemporary reader, it wasn’t necessary for me to apply a lot of text toward immersing my audience in that world. 

So, using the visual arts analogy, if An Army of Angels is comparable in size and tone to one of those busy, wall-sized 19th century paintings that you might find in the Louvre or Washington DC’s National Gallery of Art — say, something like this —V-Squad‘s narrative is simpler, more stylized, and employs cleaner lines, like this.

As a novelist, I always try to stretch myself and write something unlike anything I’ve attempted before.  Currently in front of me are six short stories related to and featuring characters from V-Squad.  Their common source notwithstanding, every one is different from both the novel and each other. 

The story I’ve been working on for about four months now consists of a spare narrative that suggests physical context without a reliance on extended description.  There’s very little internal monologue on the part of the protagonist; his psyche and emotional reactions to the world around him are reflected via his experiences and interactions with others, and not the other way around.  If this were visual art, it would be done in charcoal using simple line drawings.

Each of the other stories is equally unique and written according to its individual character.  One is broad farce; another, somber and emotionally moving; yet another, erotic.  And for the first time (which is saying something, given that I’ve been writing on and off for almost fifty years), I’m trying my hand at an out-and-out horror story reminiscent of a tale from The Twilight Zone

As I have found over time, every story worth telling has its own color, tone, and style.  So when I dip into my metaphorical toolbox, I always look forward to learning something new about the writer’s craft.  For me, there’s nothing more rewarding than painting with words.

Online Books: 21st Century Publishing

Anyone born before or around 1975 can remember a time when people bought popular music recordings on vinyl records; when moviegoers enjoyed films either exclusively in theaters or in second runs on television; and when book stores were small, ma-and-pa affairs in quaint buildings on or near every town’s Main Street.  All of that changed sometime during the late-1970s and 1980s with the coming of CDs, videotape (followed by DVDs), and corporate mega-booksellers. 

What few noticed at the time was that there was an even larger cultural revolution going on behind the scenes, one that began quietly with then teenager Bill Gates’ study of the BASIC computer language and Steve Jobs’ first employment at Hewlitt-Packard.

Fast forward to 2011.  The ongoing transformation in world culture is leading inexorably to the demise of the way that we traditionally have listened to music, watched movies, bought and read books–and yes, done business.  Almost everyone has a computer, whether a desktop or a laptop, and most of us have a cell phone of some kind or another.  Go into any surviving record or electronics store, and you’ll see that the CD section has shrunk considerably.  DVDs and BluRay discs are still prevalent but they, too, are less so than they were five years ago.  As for books. . .well, Barnes and Noble is still apparently going strong; however, the bookseller powerhouse Borders recently declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy.  We still have music, movies and books, but at an ever-increasing rate they’re relocating online to digital sellers.

At the top of the heap after seventeen years is Amazon.com, which sells all of the above and more, everything from automotive parts and aquariums to golf equipment and computers.  Together with Apple’s iTunes and other mp3/streaming/app-featuring services, Amazon has transformed public consumption of popular culture. 

Amazon’s most revolutionary innovation yet may prove to have been the Kindle reader and the downloadable books it supports; not only because of the device’s compact size and portability, and its books’ relative low prices, but for the imitators it has spawned

Which brings us to the point of this article.  With books going digital, the presence of online publishers has exploded over the past few years.  From the consumers’ point-of-view, books now are cheaper, more portable, and don’t require a trip to the neighborhood book store; all you have to do is point and click your mouse button.  For writers it’s even better.

All of us who write, even those of us who have seen our work published by major houses, have gone through the rejection letter cycle with agents and publishers.  Sometimes it’s because your book doesn’t fit with the commercial demographics the agency or book company caters to; in other instances the work is considered too esoteric, or too traditional, too hard to categorize or not commercial enough–and on and on.  Admittedly, some who submit query letters or manuscripts lack the skill or the experience to create a satisfactory piece of writing.  Whatever the reason, writers traditionally have had to learn a great deal of patience while we wait for the rejections which, on the plus side, compel us to grow thicker skins.

That, too, is changing thanks to the current digital revolution.  More and more writers are choosing to bypass traditional publishing to get their work into virtual book stores where they set their own prices and have more control over their work. 

At the moment it’s kind of like the Wild West in virtual bookland, where anything goes and almost anything at all can be published and sold.  But that’s to be expected in any new industry where standards have yet to be set and the market still hasn’t discovered what there is of value out there and separated it from the incompetently produced.  Time will take care of both, as it always does. 

Whatever happens, whether or not publishing houses bow to the new reality and go exclusively, or primarily, online, or whether they go under altogether, writers will remain.  And as they have ever since the first scribe picked up a crude tool to invent written language, they will continue to find their venues.  Writers are nothing if not adaptable.

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