You Are a Universe

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Have you ever gazed at the stars, pondered a vastness you couldn’t begin to comprehend and asked yourself if you’re really that significant, if you’re anything more than a speck on a grain of sand in a sprawling desert?

If so, take heart. Though you may be small in stature, the world inside your soul is astronomical, a boundless cosmos pregnant with thoughts and dreams, experiences and beliefs, all of which cluster into more complex structures: the humanities, the sciences, an infinite expanse of human endeavors that’s as vast as any material universe.

At the beginning of life, like the beginning of our universe, your mind, though tiny, is a roiling mass seething with enormous quantities of potential energy. In just a few short years, it expands. It acquires language and experience. Synapses form, transforming your brain into a thinking feeling powerhouse. In the process, prototypical thoughts and beliefs collide. Some are annihilated; others emerge from the rubble.

As you age, these units of thought coalesce, condensing into more stable structures. Your experiences, your perceptions, all that you think and feel, everything that defines you and makes you who you are is drawn together. Then, pressurized in the forge of the imagination, it ignites. Books are written. Technologies emerge. Diseases are cured. Outward expressions of the soul burn like stars, saving the world from darkness.

At some point in your life, you’ll likely be pulled into another person by the intense gravitational force of love. There will be a collision, and like the Big Bang, a whole new cosmos will form, a world filled with shared dreams and common experiences. Couples will cluster into families, families into communities, communities into states and nations, worlds stacked upon worlds.

When faced with the enormity of the stars, you might be tempted to conclude that your existence is just so much flotsam adrift in a celestial sea. But though you may be small when compared with the length, width and height of the universe, if you instead measure yourself against a more existential dimension, you’ll discover a whole new universe, waiting to be explored.

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Rationalist Software Developer Encounters Paradox and the Supernatural

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I was freewriting a couple of days ago, trying to flesh out an idea for a new story. I wanted to explore the overlap between the rational and the transcendental. Given my own experience as a software developer, I thought it would be interesting to take a rationalist programmer, whose daily experience is with logic and code, and place him in a situation where his philosophy would be challenged by something that human reason alone would fail to explain.

I haven’t figured out what this story is going to be about. It’s been quite a challenge, because I want this to be fantasy rather than sci-fi, yet I also want the narrative to be driven by a technologically sound scenario.

His Profile

As I said, my main character is a developer. He develops for the web, though he has a more general background in computer science and develops many different kinds of software in his spare time. He loves that he can create something from nothing, that he can make a tool simply by describing to the computer how that tool should work.

He muses over the nature of data and instructions, over the difference between the two which is nothing more than semantics. He believes that thoughts and ideas, that everything abstract and seemingly transcendent about human nature, can ultimately be reduced to and explained in terms of software and computation. He ponders the nature of the soul, and reflects on the mystery of software as “the ghost in the machine.”

He wonders sometimes if reality is just data and instructions, a simulation in some cosmic-scale computer. He wonders if it would make a difference one way or the other.

He has the rare gift of being able to tunnel down into the code he’s writing, looking for potential bugs and vulnerabilities, while simultaneously maintaining a high level awareness of the software’s architecture. He has the type of mind that latches onto problems and won’t rest until patterns emerge. He has a strong love for logic, and will sometimes spend hours of his free time exploring alternate solutions to the same problems.

He’s a little detached from things that are outside of his own head; he sees the world through an abstract theoretical lens, through algorithms, heuristics and data. He often formulates logical probabilistic models to help him explain what he observes in other people and their behavior. He develops “risk models” in his mind that he thinks will help him to live his life while minimizing risk to himself. This abstraction leads him to dehumanize the world, so that he’s concerned primarily with his own self interest.

What I Want to Do With Him

As I hinted at in this blog’s title, I’d like to throw my main character into a situation that forces him to confront something paradoxical and supernatural. But I’m not exactly sure yet what that will be.

On the one hand, I want to stick as closely as possible to the technical realities of computers and software. On the other, I don’t want this to be too scientific because I’m going for fantasy, not sci-fi. I almost feel as if the story’s theme itself is paradoxical, because it seems to me that these two constraints are mutually exclusive.

One crazy idea I had was to introduce spiritual beings whose chosen incarnations were computers. But I think that’s far-fetched. I then thought about introducing the idea of a chaotic solution that, though rationally defined on the surface, always yields unpredictable results that eventually drive my main character, and perhaps much of the technical world later, mad. But that feels a little too sci-fi.

For the moment, I’ve hit a dead end and can’t go any further. No amount of freewriting will get me out of this dilemma, at least not for a while.

So…Why Did I Share This?

Because I thought it would be fun to share what I know about my main character so far. I think he’s interesting enough on his own that he’s worth sharing. Also, I guess there’s a part of me that’s hoping one of my readers will have ideas, since right now I’m pretty stuck. So please, don’t be shy! If you have any insights or ideas that might help me figure this out, let me know in the comments below. If I use anything that comes from you, I’ll be sure to give you credit.

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Writing is Hard

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It really is.

Sure, you have the occasional explosion of creativity that spatters the walls of your mind, so that all you have to do is scrape the surface to create beautiful prose without really trying. This kind of intense inspiration can last for days, even weeks or months. But there inevitably come in every writer’s life moments when the ideas are gone, when all you can do is huddle in a dark corner with your hands over your eyes, wondering how suddenly it could have all been snatched away.

When the honeymoon is over, when you’re no longer in the throes of passion, doting over the muse with her intimately whispered secrets, when you’re left to limp alone across the desert of mediocrity and self-doubt, that’s when your dedication to the craft must not waver. It’s at the height of desperation that your faith in what you were created to do will be tested, a faith that’s critical if you’re to find the strength you need to continue stumbling blind in the dark, placing one clumsy word after another.

Good consistent writing is borne of hard work and discipline. You must be able to reach into the dusty corners of your mind, to wander through the labyrinthine corridors of consciousness, twisting and turning into infinity, diligently searching until at long last you stumble over deposits of the rarest substance there is, that raw clay of the mind, forged in the furnace of your imagination. You must shape, mold and sculpt this clay into something unique, something beautiful, something that catches the light of common everyday experience and reflects it back in all the colors of the philosophical rainbow.

Writing asks for nothing less than your soul. You must offer it willingly, allow it to be consumed by and absorbed into your stories, articles and blogs, and in so doing, allow your soul to be laid bare before the world, so that your deepest self is vulnerable to scorn and criticism.

Writing is emotionally draining, time consuming and is often without reward. Very few reap any compensation for their work at all, and of those who do, but a small percentage are blessed with the means to make a living through their art alone.

Yet, despite much hardship, the Writer takes joy in his work, for the soul of the Writer has, in spite of everything, accomplished what it was created to do. Like the One who created the Writer, he can gaze upon his work, a product of his blood and tears, and at last proclaim, “it is good.”

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Book Review: The Forbidden Library, by Django Wexler

The Forbidden Library Cover
The Forbidden Library, by Django Wexler

Synopsis from Goodreads:

When Alice’s father goes down in a shipwreck, she is sent to live with her uncle Geryon–an uncle she’s never heard of and knows nothing about. He lives in an enormous manor with a massive library that is off-limits to Alice. But then she meets a talking cat. And even for a rule-follower, when a talking cat sneaks you into a forbidden library and introduces you to an arrogant boy who dares you to open a book, it’s hard to resist. Especially if you’re a reader to begin with. Soon Alice finds herself INSIDE the book, and the only way out is to defeat the creature imprisoned within.

It seems her uncle is more than he says he is. But then so is Alice.

 

Much later, Alice would wonder what might have happened if she’d gone to bed when she was supposed to. (Page 1, Chapter 1)

This is the opening line in Django Wexler’s new middle grade fantasy, The Forbidden Library. The first in what will be a series of books, this sentence sets the tone for the rest of the story, which often keeps the reader wondering what’s going to happen next.

The Setting

Something that sets The Forbidden Library apart from many other modern middle grade fantasies I’ve read is the fact that it takes place in the past, during Hoover’s Presidential term in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. It was a daring move for a story aimed at a young contemporary audience that won’t readily identify with the period, especially when it comes to the lack of technology (they still use gas lamps.)

Wexler’s choice to set the story in the past appealed to me, however. I believe the magic books in Geryon’s library, as well as the vibrant characters and intriguing plot twists, are sufficient to hold a middle grader’s interest, and the time in which the story takes place might inspire children to buff up on their history.

The Characters

Our protagonist Alice, a precocious girl who likes to read, does well in school and strives always to be on her best behavior, serves as a role model for Wexler’s middle grade audience, especially when compared with other less savory characters, each of whom leave the reader to wonder by the end if there’s anyone poor Alice can trust.

Her companion as she explores the library in search of the fairy Vespidian, believed to be responsible for her father’s death at sea, is a talking cat named Ashes, a creature reminiscent of both the cat from Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and the Cheshire Cat from Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Being a fluent speaker of sarcasm, I could very much appreciate his wry and usually condescending tone toward Alice, and was often unable to suppress a smile. Yet, sometimes I also thought it was over the top. In one memorable exchange regarding Ashes’ views on the nature of death, I felt like I was watching the famous Dead Parrot skit from Monty Python’s Flying Circus (pay particular attention to 2:35 – 2:50.)

All the characters were vividly described, and I found their behavior to be realistic. There were no heroes (save for Alice and her father), but aside from the fairy Vespidian or Mr. Black, there were no absolute villains either. Though some were obviously more dubious than others, every character exhibited both decent and not-so-decent qualities. They were believable for the same reason that Rowling’s characters in Harry Potter were believable: their humanity, with all of their flaws and imperfections.

There was so much subterfuge that during the course of my reading, I would think I’d figured out a character’s motivations, only to discover a few pages or a few chapters later that I was mistaken. By the end, I could only feel sorry for Alice, who’s been thrust into a dangerous game saturated with competing agendas and zealous self-interest.

One thing that impressed me about Alice’s character was her conscience. In her forced encounters inside prison books, worlds accessible only to Readers, in which dangerous creatures were imprisoned long ago, creatures that must be bested and consequently bound to the victorious Reader if the Reader is to survive the journey inside, Alice would first attempt to win through cool-headed reason and argument, and would only ever kill as a last resort, though killing was the normal course of action for every other Reader. And then, after she’d bound a creature to her will, she’d only ask it to do something dangerous when absolutely necessary, and would always do her best to avoid allowing it to experience pain, an attitude that was also at odds with the means by which the same creatures were employed by Geryon and the other Readers. It further cements Alice’s role as a hero and a model for children to look up to, teaching them that those in positions of great power should be the most humble and charitable of us all.

Reading as Magic.

What drives this particular fantasy is the conceit that books are special, that they literally contain magic, accessible only to a special class of people called Readers. Some are portal books, which transport Readers from one place to another. Others are prison books, which contain dangerous creatures that were locked away forever during their book’s creation.

The magic inherent to Reading is an allegory for the power of words, stories and the imagination. It allows both children and adults to approach something that’s ordinary and mundane on the surface from a different angle, from the vantage point of the extraordinary, so that reading is made exciting once more.

Writing and Style.

Wexler has sarcasm and dry humor down to an art. From the way he features the lawyers and accountants who descend on Alice’s father’s estate like vultures the moment he’s lost at sea, to the way he playfully describes otherwise ordinary objects and sounds, I was blown away by how witty and clever the writing was. Just a heads up: if you don’t appreciate sarcastic humor, you probably won’t enjoy this book.

The story’s pace pairs well with the plot. When the reader should stop to take a look around, things slow down, and we’re presented with many fine details that paint a beautiful picture that make the world come alive. When the reader should feel tension and suspense, things speed up, so that the reader is caught up in the fervor of conflict and can’t put the book down until things are finally resolved. In either case, there was never a point where I felt that the story dragged, or where I felt that the story should have slowed down. Like the last bowl of porridge in Goldilocks and the Three Bears, it was just right.

I often found myself comparing various passages to poetry, and discovered that Wexler’s very creative when it comes to the use of simile. Below are some specific sentences that stood out to me:

…and after the accountants, like a Biblical plague building up to a big finish, came the lawyers. (Page 16, Chapter 2)

Again the silence, as though the conversation had fallen into a pot hole. (Page 35, Chapter 3)

The flame flickered weakly…, like a caged spirit. (Page 51, Chapter 5)

Each gust of wind brought a rush of whispering leaves, rising and falling like the sound of surf on a beach. (Page 71, Chapter 6)

Wexler also peppers in some great vocabulary words, just enough that it always comes off as natural and unobtrusive. As a lover of words, I could appreciate his approach, and I’m hopeful that kids will make the effort to look them up. Here are just a few of the words that I enjoyed: avuncular, plinth, hermitage, vanguard, tureen and scrupulous. I tried to write them all down, but I was so caught up in what I was reading that after the first few chapters I lost track.

Other Thoughts.

The books in The Forbidden Library reminded me a lot of the 1994 computer game Myst, which contained both “linking books,” which transported explorers from one world to another, and books in which people could be imprisoned. I also detected significant influences from Harry Potter — when Alice passes through the wall of the library just like Harry at King’s Cross Station — Coraline and Alice in Wonderland.

Wexler used the Swarm, Alice’s first bound entity, to come up with some creative solutions to otherwise difficult problems. In particular, I would watch out for how Alice approaches her final prison book’s adversary.

There’s a lot of foreshadowing, from the very first sentence to things that hint at events to come in future books. During Alice’s final confrontation, it’s strongly implied that she has a unique ability that I suspect will come into play again in either the next book or in one further down the road.

There were times when I was confused, or when I felt that something was not adequately explained. I thought, for example, that Alice’s encounter with her essence should have been expounded on. I found myself asking why the experience of gazing upon one’s own essence should be so painful, but only during the first time, and I never received a satisfactory answer. I was also unclear as to whether or not her father, who appeared to Alice in a dream, was really just a product of her subconscious mind or if her father had found some way to communicate with her.

I loved the transitions between the opening of a book, when Alice would start reading, and the beginning of Alice’s experience inside the book, both of which employed the same first sentences, linking the two together beautifully.

Finally, in exploring the nature of the creatures bound up inside prison books, some fascinating existential themes arise that will appeal to the story’s older audience.

Conclusion.

The Forbidden Library is an enjoyable, unique and well-written tale with a satisfying climactic ending that answers just enough questions to provide relief, but leaves enough mysteries unsolved that the reader will be left eagerly anticipating the next book in the series.

I enthusiastically recommend The Forbidden Library to children and adults, and give this one four out of five stars.

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Does What You Do Matter?

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If you’re like me, you probably stop to look around once in a while and wonder if your actions are noticed, if the decisions you make affect the world in any remotely measurable way. After all, you’re only one individual, just so much flotsam floating around in a boundless roiling sea of people who will never know your name.

When you try to help out a friend, when you give food to a homeless person, when you do anything at all to show the people around you that you care, have you really contributed to the health and well-being of the world? When you’re frustrated and you choose to take it out on others, when you steal a few dollars when you think no one’s looking, when you indulge in idle gossip or slander, are you really a significant part of the world’s problems? Does what you do matter, or are all of your deeds just statistical anomalies, a series of dead-end choices that are drowned out by the deafening noise of a densely populated world?

If you’re a celebrity or world leader, your role is obvious. You have a large sphere of influence, and your actions directly impact thousands or even millions of people. But if you’re just an average Joe, it’s easy to believe that what you do is meaningless, that however you choose to act, your deeds won’t ever touch the world in a significant way.

The problem with this belief is that it’s born of a limited vision. You can only sense what stands immediately before you, and unless you can witness the impact your choices have on the rest of the world, you’re going to dismiss the things you do as insignificant. This narrow perception blinds you to the bigger picture and makes it impossible for you to understand how connected you are to everyone else, to how much good and how much evil you’re capable of inflicting on the world through the simple act of making choices, which on the surface appear mundane and insignificant.

In reality, everything you do has vast far-reaching consequences, not just for your immediate family and friends, but for your whole community, your nation, even the world. The things you do aren’t isolated events. Your choices influence others. On a normal day, you might only interact with ten people, but all ten of those people will interact with  others, and each of those will interact with yet others. Like the surface of a lake when it’s disturbed, your actions ripple outward, propagating through the social layers of the world, their reach magnified with distance.

A rude gesture is like a match applied to dry kindling; it seems so trivial, until the fire spreads, consuming the world, leaving those who’ve lost everything in its wake to wonder how the fire could have been started in the first place.

An act of love, on the other hand, sparks a different kind of fire, one that has its genesis in a smile, a hug, or a word of encouragement, one that consumes hearts, until the world is a conflagration of kindness, empathy and compassion.

Most of us dream about changing the world, about making the world better. It’s only when faced with the apparent worthlessness of our existence that we become jaded, that we give up on our dream because we can’t see any reasonable way to achieve it.

Our dream of a better world can be realized. But to make it happen, we must first extend our vision beyond what we can see with our eyes. We must be capable of comprehending the far-reaching consequences of our actions. We might not be able to see how those outside our spheres of influence will be affected, but we can use our imagination to paint a larger picture, to see how the things we do might grow and spread beyond our local communities.

Reading fiction is one way to accomplish this. Fiction lets us witness firsthand not only the actions of individuals, but all the many ways in which those actions affect others. It’s a fantastic mental exercise that breeds a profound awareness of the human condition. There’s a reason we’ve been telling stories for millennia.

While it’s important to recognize our individuality and to value the many ways in which we’re unique, it’s equally important to recognize that we’re not just a loosely bound collection of disconnected beings, but a societal organism whose body is the composition of the entire human population. What happens to one part of the body affects the others. Evil deeds spread like cancer, until they metastasize and begin to destroy. Good deeds, on the other hand, are healing forces, which fight the malignant tumors even as they sustain and uplift everything else, rejuvenating the world.

Understanding that your actions do in fact leave a lasting impression on the planet, you shouldn’t ask yourself if what you do matters. Instead, you should decide if you desire to be a part of the cancer or a part of the cure.

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Steady As She Goes

“Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” Ludolf Backhuysen, 1695.

Writing and I have had a tumultuous relationship, and throughout the course of our affair, I’ve had the tendency to oscillate between emotional extremes. One moment, I’ll obsess over something I’ve just written, convinced in the most private chambers of my heart that I’m the next William Shakespeare. The next, I’ll regard whatever project I happen to be working on with contempt, convinced I’m nothing but a fraud, that it’s only a matter of time before the world sees me for the hack I truly am and it’s all over.

It turns out that many writers, as well as artists of every other discipline, exhibit this curious emotional duality. We love our projects, our children of the mind, with all of their many quirks and imperfections, and for a time we have eyes only for their potential. But then we scrutinize them more closely, become increasingly sensitive to their flaws, magnified so that they blot out everything else, and soon we wonder how we could have ever considered our work “good.”

Either extreme left unchecked will wreak havoc on an artist’s creative aspirations, and could even shipwreck them altogether. Excess pride leads toward stagnation and a refusal to acknowledge thoughtful criticism, for how can one perfect something if, in their eyes, it’s already perfect? On the opposite end of the spectrum, excess despair leaves one feeling as if there’s no point, that they might as well give up while they’re still ahead.

Over the years, I’ve come to understand that emotions are fickle, that there’s no logical reason for why one moment you should feel one thing and the next something else entirely. Amidst the billowing gale of conflicting desires, passions and the ever-shifting perceptions of my artistic value, I’ve realized that in the end, how I feel is really rather pointless. All that matters is whether or not I write.

When I’m feeling haughty, high and mighty, I acknowledge the emotion, set it aside and continue writing. When I’m feeling dejected, depressed and full of despair, I acknowledge the emotion, set it aside and continue writing. I write, I write and I write. I write through the good feelings. I write through the bad. The willful choice to act regardless of this transient passion or that becomes a moderating force, a lighthouse that illumines the way forward in a dark and unstable sea. I have no control over how I feel. But I do have control over how I act in spite of how I feel.

If you’re an artist of any stripe, do what you love to do. Do you believe that you’re invincible, that you and the vision you carry around inside your head have the capacity to transform the world? Recognize the feeling, let it go and make art. Do you believe that you’re a hack, that you have nothing of value to share with the world and that you might as well not even try? Recognize the feeling, let it go and make art.

Emotions will come and emotions will go. Like the explosive gusts of a hurricane or a typhoon, they’ll buffet you from every side, threaten to bowl you over where you stand. Fine. Let them come. Do what you love to do anyway. Stand your ground.

Do what you were made to do, always do what you were made to do, and even in the midst of chaos, you’ll find peace.

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California Bookstore Day, 2014 (and How I Came To Acquire a Standalone Copy of Neil Gaiman’s “The Sleeper & The Spindle”)

Bookstore Day, 2014

What is Bookstore Day?

Bookstore Day was a state-wide celebration that took place in California on Saturday, May 3, 2014 to honor the relationship between readers and the independent bookstores who support them. 93 shops participated, hosting various events such as readings and author signings. Special books and other items were sold in limited quantities, merchandise that was only available on that day and from those sellers.

I heard about this the day before it happened on Twitter, and decided that I had to be a part of it. I went online, found two indie bookstores that were relatively close and set out on a quest for literary adventure. This is where my tale begins.

Mysterious Galaxy

My first stop was Mysterious Galaxy in Redondo Beach, CA.

Mysterious Galaxy in Redondo Beach, CA
Mysterious Galaxy in Redondo Beach, CA

I arrived at 10:40am, twenty minutes before the store opened. Because of Bookstore Day (along with the limited edition copy of Neil Gaiman’s short story The Sleeper & The Spindle to be had inside), I was anxiously anticipating hordes of book-hunting vikings, and braced myself to do battle with traffic and long lines. I was therefore pleasantly surprised when I arrived to plenty of parking, and doubly surprised to discover that there was no wait outside the front door.

Though the store itself hadn’t opened yet, there was an attached coffee shop that was already doing business, so I went inside and bought a cup of peppermint tea to pass the time.

I asked if I could take it with me into the store, and they told me I could carry it wherever I went as long as it remained inside the building. I thought that an odd answer, until they gave me my drink in a clay mug. What does it say about the world we live in that I would be confounded by a non-disposable cup?

Peppermint Tea
My peppermint tea

Tea in hand, I sat down at a long wooden table and pulled out my notebook to do some freewriting, resolved to enjoy the atmosphere. I let my eyes meander about the room, and observed that there were enough people present to make me feel that I was a part of something special, but not so many that they began to feel like a crowd. I was anxious to see the treasures that awaited (and thus sipped my tea with perhaps a bit more enthusiasm than was strictly proper), but because I wasn’t competing with a bunch of other strangers for floor space, I never once felt that I had to spring from my seat and fly like a bat out of hell the moment they opened.

When the gate that separated the coffee shop from the rest of the building was finally pulled back, I polished off the remainder of my peppermint tea and set off to explore.

Inside Mysterious Galaxy.
Inside Mysterious Galaxy shortly after they opened

As soon as I walked inside, a nice gentleman from behind the counter approached and asked if there was anything he could do to help me.

“No thanks. Just looking around,” I replied. Then, remembering one of the reasons I’d decided to make the trip, I amended my answer and asked if he could get me a copy of The The Sleeper & The Spindle. I would have waited until I was ready to check out, but despite the lack of a crowd, I still had the irrational fear that it would sell out before I had the chance to buy it.

He dashed off to retrieve it, and a moment later I was holding on to something unspeakably beautiful. I thanked him, and before he left to help other customers, he told me to let him know if there was anything else he could do. It was the kind of prompt and enthusiastic service that you just won’t find at a large corporate chain like Barnes & Noble.

"The Serpent of Venice," by Christopher Moore.
“The Serpent of Venice,” by Christopher Moore

I discovered lots of interesting books as I walked around. They were all titles you could find online, of course; I didn’t notice anything that was obviously independently published or put out by a local press. But it was good just to be inside a bookstore again, to discover new stories the old fashioned way, by perusing shelves, waiting for something random to catch my eye and demand a closer look.

Among the interesting titles I encountered were The Serpent of Venice, by Christopher Moore; William Shakespeare’s Star Wars, episodes four and five, by Ian Doescher (real Shakespearean plays, written in iambic pentameter!); and The Onion Book of Knowledge (from America’s “finest news source.”)

I ultimately decided on William Shakespeare’s Star Wars, as well as my one-of-a-kind Neil Gaiman book, and headed toward the register to pay. I thought that that would be the end of my experience, but there was one surprise left.

Second installment to "William Shakespeare's Star Wars," by Ian Doescher.
Second installment to “William Shakespeare’s Star Wars,” by Ian Doescher

When I’d handed the cashier my credit card and was waiting for a receipt, the man pointed to a rack of books and informed me that I could pick one out for free in celebration of Bookstore Day. There weren’t a lot of items to choose from, but I did stumble across a hardcover copy of Will in Scarlet, by Mathew Cody, a retelling of the classic legend of Robin Hood. I thought, “why not,” and wound up exiting the store toting an extra book to read.

My whole experience was fraught with friendliness and smiles, and I left resolved to return as soon as I was in the market for more physical books, even if it meant that I’d have to drive thirty minutes out of the way to get there. The service, as well as the knowledge that I could be a part of a community instead of just another tick on a corporate ledger, was worth the extra effort.

{Pages}

Next in my tour was {Pages}, also located in Redondo Beach.

{Pages} A Bookstire, Redondo Beach, CA.
{Pages}, Redondo Beach, CA

{Pages} is a tiny street-side store backed up against the coast. Parking here was limited to what you could find on the street, and as anyone from Southern California knows, you have about as much luck parking on the street at the beach as you do winning the lottery. Nevertheless, after much wailing and gnashing of teeth, I was strolling along a narrow road stacked from one end to the other with small independent shops, and was soon standing outside my destination.

Inside {Pages} A Bookstore
Inside {Pages}

{Pages} was smaller than Mysterious Galaxy, but that only made the shop feel cozy and inviting. By the time I’d gotten there, there wasn’t much of a crowd, but one of the workers informed me that there’d been a line that’d snaked outside the shop before they’d opened, and that they’d sold out of Neil Gaiman’s short story in their first half hour. Good thing I’d purchased my own copy at Mysterious Galaxy first!

I don’t have too much to report about {Pages} that I haven’t already said about Mysterious Galaxy, and I’d imagine that most of the same would apply to any good indie bookstore. I received prompt and cheerful service and had an overall experience that was very positive.

I wound up purchasing a hardcover copy of The Museum of Extraordinary Things, by Alice Hoffman, even though I was planning to spend less money by buying the e-book instead, because I wanted to support {Pages}.

After checking out, I returned to my car, noting that I’d left five minutes on the meter for the person behind me (there was no end to my generosity that day), and embarked on the journey home with a newfound awareness of all the options available to me whenever I might feel like going to a bookstore instead of purchasing e-books online.

Some Final Thoughts

"The Sleeper & The Spindle," by Neil Gaiman.
My copy of “The Sleeper & The Spindle,” by Neil Gaiman. Are you jealous? 😉

Bookstore day was a great way for me to discover the thriving community of indie bookstores in my area. Until hearing about the event, I’d always assumed that they were a dying breed and that there weren’t very many places left to go unless you were willing to visit one of the many Barnes & Noble replicants. Once I examined the event’s website, I realized just how many open shops were within driving distance, not just in Redondo Beach, but also in San Diego, Pasadena, Los Angeles, West Hollywood and Santa Monica. It was a great introduction to indie bookstore culture, and I hope that Bookstore Day will become an annual event that spreads beyond the borders of California.

I am and always will be a fan of online outlets like Amazon. Big business with a strong online presence fills a critical niche. But indie bookstores are also an important part of the literary ecosystem. I believe in a healthy balance between big and small business. I’ll always rely on Amazon for my e-books and for purchasing titles that I can’t find at a brick and mortar store. But when I’m in the market for a physical book, I think I’m going to make more of an effort to shop locally. There’s a whole social experience that’s missed online, especially when the seller is a small independent business as opposed to a large corporate entity. It’s nice to walk into a store and chat with a friendly face, and the warm relationships that blossom between local vendors and their regular customers is priceless.

It’s with a heavy heart that I report I was unable to stay for any of the events hosted by the bookstores. I thought about returning to Mysterious Galaxy in the afternoon, and maybe even driving out to Pasadena to check out some more stores, but the demands of the day got the better of me and I was forced to stay home. Fortunately, I’ve discovered through social media and the stores’ websites that there will be other events to look forward to. So I’ll just have to use my regret as motivation to check out more of what’s going on in the future.

I’ve got a lot more exploring to do; there are so many stores left that I wasn’t able to see. Here’s hoping for more positive experiences, and that public awareness of independent booksellers and their contributions to the world of literature will continue to grow and thrive long into the next century.

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Can I Hear the Voices of the Dead?

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Humans have long been fascinated by the idea that they could somehow speak with the dead. Most of us feel connected to them in one way or another, and we often ache for the chance to reunite. There are grieved lovers who want another chance to say goodbye; students who seek advice from deceased mentors; family members who yearn to make amends for past wrongs. Whatever our reasons, this craving for a continued relationship with our predecessors seems to be built into our DNA.

More than once, I’m sure you’ve thought, “if only I could hear the voices of the dead.” Well, what if I told you that you could?

Books are the answer.

When we read, our ancestors speak to us once more. Though death may have taken them, their voices remain with us in all that they’ve written, indelibly etched into the edifice of time. Books are the means by which we learn from our genealogical, intellectual and spiritual progenitors, as well as how we ourselves communicate with future generations, ensuring that whatever we learn during our ephemeral Earthly existence will never be lost.

They’re the voices of wise parents and teachers, telling us that our struggles were once theirs. They give us advice, and they teach us how to deal with our problems so that we won’t have to suffer the same mistakes.

They’re the voices of friends and lovers, who bestow comfort and hope in times of distress. They remind us through their stories — some joyful and others tragic — of how to love and how to feel. They teach us how to weather the storm of life, and in the midst of a world that often seems harsh, cold and uncaring, they help us understand that life is always worth living, and that everything happens for a reason.

They’re the voices of scientists, poets and philosophers, perpetuating beauty and knowledge from age to age so that both might never be lost. They whisper to us in the dark corners of our bedrooms and offices after hours, so that we too might be privy to whatever secrets they discovered before their Earthly journeys were complete.

In death, you too can speak to the living.

Just as your ancestors left behind their own voices, so too can you leave yours, so that when your appointed time comes, future generations will still be able to learn from the wisdom you attained in life.

Don’t have time to write a book? Don’t worry about it. Keep a journal. Freewrite for five minutes about your thoughts and feelings. Write letters to friends and family. Your words need not be formally compiled, edited and published by a major press. Some of our most treasured literary artifacts were those that were penned or spoken informally, passed down from teachers to students, parents to children or between friends and lovers.

Our ancestors will always be with us.

In books, we discover that the voices of those who’ve died persist, teaching, exorting, comforting, encouraging, continuing to dwell among each and every one of us. They give us hope for the future, and when we have hope for the future, we feel compelled to offer up our own wisdom, which we pray will be useful to those who come after us.

The next time you want to reconnect with someone from the past, don’t wait until your own demise to be with them. Just pick up a book and read.

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What Am I Working On?

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I’ve been blogging once a week for half a year now. In that time, I’ve written about all sorts of things. But I rarely talk about my projects.

One reason is that I don’t want to come off as salesy or spammy. Though my blog does exist in part to help me build an audience for my work, I want that to be the by-product of what I hope are meaningful thought-provoking articles and stories that resonate with hearts and enrich my readers.

Another reason is that I don’t have a whole lot to show for myself, not yet anyway. There’s my short story, The Sign, but that’s pretty much it. Though I’ve been writing in some form or another since at least the third grade, it wasn’t until early 2013 that I began to take it seriously, and writing good books (and then publishing them) takes an insanely long time.

But I’ve decided I owe you some kind of update, if for no other reason than to let you know that yes, I am writing and yes, there are books on the way, even if it’s going to take me a while to get them to you. I’m not ready to reveal detailed information about titles, plot or characters, but I do want to give you a brief taste of things to come.

1. Middle Grade Fantasy

In March, 2013, shortly after I published The Sign, I began work on a middle grade fantasy about a boy who accidentally makes his sister disappear. The funny thing is that my target audience has always been adults; I never set out to write a book for kids.

It started as a simple novella. I had the idea while I was out for a walk. It wasn’t until after I’d completed the first draft and started showing it to my critique group that I realized I’d unwittingly stumbled onto a children’s book. In the process, I discovered that writing for kids is a delight, and I’ve since decided that, no matter how difficult it is to write for more than one audience, I want to make books for children as well as for adults.

Books are often difficult to write. It doesn’t matter how powerful an idea is or how inspired you might feel. Most of the time, writing is hard. There are of course those moments of pure unadulterated joy that every writer lives for, when the story flows out of you like a babbling stream, and your only job is to sit there and catch as much of it as you can before it stops. But as a serious writer who’s committed to creating stories come Hell or high water, I’ve discovered how rare those moments are. But writing this one was a dream. I sat down each night to one fiery burst of ideas after another. I usually have to outline at least some of the books I set out to write, but this one was completely off the cuff. It simply came to me, a wandering orphaned idea in need of form and expression. I completed the first draft in two months.

I’ve since been revising like crazy. I’ve gone through every chapter of the book with my critique group, have had my first round of beta readers provide me with their detailed thoughts and have almost completed my final initial revisions. Once that’s done, the manuscript goes off to a developmental editor for further refinement. I’m still deciding if I’m going to query agents and try to get this published traditionally or if I’m going to self-publish. Either way, I hope it won’t be too much longer before you start reading about the experiences of characters who’ve become very dear to me.

I actually plan to make this a series, because the characters and the story grew so large that to confine them to just a single book would be a crime. I’m excited to see how this story will evolve in the next few years.

2. Dark Fantasy Novel for Adults

I started this one in July, 2013, a little while after completing my middle grade fantasy.

Inspired by films like “The Neverending Story” and “Stranger than Fiction,” this book chronicles the life of an isolated and socially anxious writer with an unusual gift, whose stories are more than they appear to be at first glance. This tale, which is as much a symbolic reflection on the nature of art and writing as it is a modern fantasy, is very dark, and is intended for an adult audience.

The initial draft is only about 20% complete. It’s a full-length novel, and I anticipate that it’ll be a little while longer before it’s done. That’s fine with me, as I’m happy to let it ferment slowly over time. I care deeply about this story and want to take the time to tell it right.

3. Other Novellas and Short Stories

While alternating between the two above-mentioned projects, I’ve indulged in a few unrelated novellas and short stories. It’s difficult working on the same two projects day in and day out. Exploring fresh original ideas allows me the breath of fresh air that I so desperately need. Unlike the two books above, which I may try to sell to a traditional publishing house through an agent, these I plan to publish myself, since the traditional market for short fiction seems to have dried up.

That’s it.

I don’t mean that this is all that I plan to write (I’ll create stories until the day I die.) But that’s a pretty complete rundown of what I’m working on right now. I hope to have the middle grade fantasy out in a year or two (but don’t quote me on that, particularly if I do get it traditionally published, which would make it subject to someone else’s schedule instead of my own), and the dark fantasy a year or two after that. Along the way, expect more short stories and novellas.

Want to keep up with what I’m doing?

Then you should seriously consider joining my mailing list 🙂

I only plan to send out an email once a month to keep people abreast of what’s going on with my writing, to share the occasional piece of flash fiction that you won’t find anywhere else and to let you know when I publish something new. I want to connect with my readers and to make new friends. Highly personal emails that people can directly reply to is the best way I can think of to do that. If you change your mind later, it’s easy to unsubscribe.

As a thank you for caring enough about what I’m doing to sign up, I’ll send you a free copy of my short story The Sign.

You can sign up by clicking here.

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Choose Fiction For The Perfect Vacation

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Hello, and welcome to the Jeff Coleman Travel Agency.

Please, pull up a chair and have a seat. There’s nothing like getting away from it all, is there? I’m excited for you! What’s that? There’s a problem? Well, tell me more about it and we’ll see if we can accommodate you.

You don’t have much money? Yes, I can see how that might limit your options. But there are plenty of places to go that won’t cost you an arm or a leg.

There’s something else? You don’t have any time off from work. That’s a shame. But there are plenty of places you can go for just a weekend.

That’s not all? Of course not. No, no. That’s fine. Please, go on. I like a challenge.

You want a thrilling adventure outdoors, but your spouse wants a cozy romantic getaway? And you have kids and there’s no one to sit for you, so you’ll have to bring them along?

Yes, I see your point. I’ll be honest with you. I’m not really sure what we can do, unless… You know what? I think I might have something. Hold on.

I see you’ve helped yourself to some coffee in my absence. No, that’s fine. It’s complimentary. As I was saying, I think I might’ve found something. Take a look at these.

Why are you confused? Yes, those are books. Calm down. I know you said you wanted a vacation. Let me explain.

You don’t have much money, right? Then this is the perfect solution! A book can be yours for just a few dollars. You can tour as many worlds as you’d like. You can quest for buried treasure. You can battle fearsome beasts. You can discover exotic landscapes and architecture, the likes of which you won’t find anywhere else. And you can have all of this for less than the price of a meal at a decent restaurant.

Try booking a hotel, flight and rental car for that little cash!

Yes, I’m aware that you’re quite busy. Wait, what did you say? Sixty plus hours a week? Well, no. I admit my job is a tad cushier than that. But that’s not a problem either. You see, books require very small investments of time. Do you ever have to use the bathroom? Do you eat lunch? What about the drive home? Yes, alright. For the drive, we might have to get you some audiobooks. Still, my point stands.

Traveling by car, train, plane or boat can take hours or even days. But travel by book is always instantaneous, and you can return whenever you’d like. You can slip away for a few minutes when things get too hectic at work and your boss will never know that you’ve gone!

Yeah, that is pretty cool, isn’t it. What was that? Oh, right. Your significant other. Yes, and the kids. That’s not a problem either.

I know you said you wanted an adventure. Yes, I also remember that your spouse prefers a romantic getaway.  I’m aware that you require something child-friendly. I do listen, you know. It’s my job. Why can’t you have all three? No, I’m not crazy. Just hear me out.

See, the great thing about traveling by book is that you need not leave your spouse’s or your childrens’ side. You can go places without ever having to leave. We’ll find you a thriller, a horror, or maybe even a good old fashioned epic fantasy. We’ll book a romance for your spouse, and there are plenty of options for the kids. You can spend time with your family while also enjoying the convenience of your very own private fantasy.

You’ll take it? Great! I promise, you won’t be disappointed.

How can you thank me? Please, your smile is reward enough. Oh, and there’s the matter of my usual fee…

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