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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All You Need is Love

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At the end of all things, when at last you gaze down from the precipice at what was once the vista of your life, you will come to understand that the value of your time here on Earth had nothing to do with material wealth or power, that it had nothing to do with good health, that it had nothing to do with whether or not you accomplished everything you wished to do when you were alive. Instead, you will find that the measure of your worthiness hinges solely on whether or not you loved. The pinnacle of existence, the highest pleasure, is to live a life in communion with others, to love and to be loved. Love is the fulfillment of the human experience.

There are different kinds of love. There’s the love we’re born into, that between a father and a son, a mother and a daughter, a brother and a sister. There’s the love between friends. There’s eros, the uniquely intimate love between two people that culminates in an even greater love, the conception of new life. There are so many ways to love, so many ways to express our need to be close to others.

All the money and health and power in the world can’t buy the simplest kind of happiness that can be purchased for as a little as a smile, a hug or a kiss. With enough money and power, you can move mountains. But what of that? With enough love, you can move souls.

Love can be experienced by the poor as well as the rich, by the sick as well as the healthy, by the foolish as well as the wise. It knows no boundaries. It’s an all-consuming fire that razes the world, burning down the material and ideological divides that separate us, reducing us to our purest essence.

Love has the power to shine into the darkest depths. It provides aid and comfort before the most fearsome powers of Hell, even as death and despair surround you from every side. As long as there’s love, there’s hope. Nothing is more precious.

To love is to be a part of something greater than yourself, to be one with a collective whole that feeds and nourishes the soul even as it sustains and uplifts the body. To be indifferent, to shut yourself away from this life-giving force, is to be cut off from this higher existence, to slowly wither and die, cold and alone, huddling in some obscure corner of the world even as those around you burn with the blinding radiance of a star, with the brilliance of hearts set ablaze by the most powerful force in the universe.

Reading fiction can teach you how to love. It affords you access to the hearts and minds of a variety of characters, and in so doing, helps you to understand others, since well-written characters always reflect real people.

In fact, Research has shown that reading fosters empathy. And it’s precisely this emotional understanding that bursts through the walls that separate us, that bridges hearts so that all who know might come to love, and in so doing save themselves from the only kind of death that man should ever fear.

Has yours been a life worth living? For the answer, you must only ask yourself one question: “have I loved?”

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What Can Fantasy Teach Me About Reality?

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Who doesn’t love a good story?

Fiction is an indispensable part of the human experience. Without it, the world would be a dreary place. Imagination is essential for one’s sanity and happiness. But we always go into fiction with the understanding that what we’re experiencing isn’t real. Though we choose to suspend disbelief, there’s always that part of our brain that maintains the distinction between reality and fantasy. A vast unbridgeable chasm exists between the two: one is real, the other is not.

You might reasonably ask yourself, “what can fantasy teach me about reality?”

Fantasy teaches us about real people.

Though fictional characters are spun from the thread of dreams, their underlying natures are based on real people. Authors must always draw from a massive catalog of real-life experience; if what they want to write about can’t be found within its pages, it must be labeled as unbelievable and cast aside.

Fantasy is, in fact, an exhaustive study of humanity. It offers lessons from three unique angles:

  1. We learn about the characters. We’re privy to their thoughts, we observe their actions and we witness the ways in which they relate to others.
  2. We learn about the author. The way a storyteller’s characters think and act is a reflection of the storyteller himself. They can teach us about his cultural heritage, his upbringing, his prejudices, his interests, even how he might have gotten along with others. An artist’s creation is as much an expression of the artist as it is of the art itself.
  3. We learn about ourselves. Given that a realistic fictional character is based on authentic human nature, and that we are in fact real people, it stands to reason that we would find ourselves at least partially reflected in their image. We experience bits and pieces of ourselves in the characters we encounter, and we have the benefit of an outsider’s perspective. As a result, we discover more of who we are.

Fantasy teaches us to appreciate the extraordinary within the ordinary.

All good fiction no matter how whimsical is rooted in reality, because we can only relate to something that aligns with our understanding of the universe and how it works. There might be magic, but that magic is always governed by rules, and the basic laws of nature, though extended, always remain backward-compatible with our own. People don’t walk through walls or breathe under water unless they possess special powers, and in such cases they are the exception rather than the rule.

Unfortunately, we take reality for granted. Because it’s something we interact with every day, because it’s no longer new as it once was when we were children, we disregard it. Thankfully, fantasy reorients our perspective.

Free from that thin veneer of mundanity that ordinarily coats the surface of reality, we’re involuntarily struck by the raw beauty we encounter in the world of our dreams. We take these experiences with us and assimilate them into who we are. Gradually, we become accustomed to seeing things through the lens of childlike awe. Eventually, without ever realizing what’s happened, we rediscover the extraordinary that lies hidden just beneath the surface of the ordinary.

We become sensitive to the great emotional epics that play out within the confines of real relationships. Our hearts are smitten by the jaw-dropping beauty that manifests itself in real landscapes. We become aware of the magic that’s existed all along, operating under the name of Science. We become sensitive to a hidden splendor that’s always been accessible to us, but was until recently outside our once narrowed field of vision. Imagination is like a mirror: the mystery and wonder we encounter in fantasy is reflected back onto our perception of the world, flooding it with new light so that we can see the world anew.

Fantasy teaches us to accept difficult truths.

There are uncomfortable realities we prefer not to think about. We’re faced daily with poverty, hunger, war, mental illness, even the evil within ourselves. Life is much easier when we allow ourselves to forget that the world is a dark place. As a result, we erect mental walls when sensitive topics are broached. Our eyes glaze over and we assume the mental stance of a three year old, covering his ears and singing “la, la, la…”

Reading fiction is one way to become more receptive. Because stories aren’t real (at least on the surface), we have a much greater tolerance for controversial ideas. We open the gates and we allow the author’s beliefs to make a home inside our hearts.

Because good fiction is grounded in reality, it’s inevitable that we begin to apply these beliefs alongside our own. Like Inception, the ideas communicated through stories bubble up into our conscious minds as if they were our own. In this regard, artists wield a very real and profound power over the rest world, and therefore have a grave moral obligation to always tell the truth.

Fantasy teaches us how to approach and solve real problems.

Simply put, fantasy makes us better problem solvers. We observe how different kinds of characters respond to adversity, learn from them and apply what we learned to our own problems. Fantasy teaches us to be creative, to think “outside the box,” to be more adaptable.

Neil Gaiman cites an interesting example. In an article for The Guardian called Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming, he writes:

I was in China in 2007, at the first party-approved science fiction and fantasy convention in Chinese history. And at one point I took a top official aside and asked him Why? SF had been disapproved of for a long time. What had changed?

It’s simple, he told me. The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.

Conclusion: Fantasy is reality remixed.

Fantasy is only fictional on the surface. Humans may be capable of imagining things outside their immediate scope of experience, but they can only do so by forging new connections between existing ideas. Like so many songs on the market today, stories are nothing more than reality remixed.

If it’s not real, it won’t make sense. If it doesn’t make sense, we won’t connect with what we’re reading. And if we don’t connect with what we’re reading, we’re going to get frustrated and put the book aside.

In order to concoct convincing tales, authors must resort to unabashedly plagiarizing reality, and in the end all they can do in their never-ending quest for originality is to hope and pray that they were clever enough not to get caught.

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Why I Write

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Why do I write?

Writing isn’t easy, especially for those of us who work full-time in a completely unrelated field. You come home from work exhausted. Those very rare moments of explosive inspiration aside, you have to force yourself to sit down and work some more, when all your body really wants to do is eat and go to sleep. You have to face the demons of self-doubt, which hover over your shoulder in the darkness, whispering that you’re not good enough, that you’re a hack, that today is the day everyone will discover you’re a fraud. You have to recognize that you will fail, and you have to do it anyway.

You then have to be brave enough to confront the crap you wrote the next day. You have to take this rough source material, this hunk of dark grey clay forged from the jumbled stilted dreams of the insubstantial mind, and mold it into something half-way decent. You have to revise. You have to revise again.

After the number of revisions rivals even the number of stars in the galaxy, you have to break out of your shell and share your work with others. You have to not only accept but embrace rejection. You have to allow your heart to be broken, and then you have to pick up the pieces and try again. You have to revise. You have to revise again.

If you intend to publish, your not even close to finished. If you go the traditional route, you still have to send out hundreds of query letters to agents, be rejected over and over again, and hope that at least one will take an interest in your work. And whether you go through traditional channels or self-publish, if your book is to have a prayer of succeeding, you’ll still have to hand your work off to an editor, who will point out all the many things that are wrong that you didn’t catch in the first bazillion and one revisions. You have to revise. You have to revise again.

After all this, there’s nevertheless the very real possibility that nobody will want to read what you spent months or years writing. Bookstore shelves are littered with books that will never be purchased, books which will be returned to the publisher for a refund, books written by authors who will never have an opportunity to publish again. The Amazon Kindle store is bursting at the seams with self-published titles that will all suffer a similar fate. And if your books do sell, they likely won’t make anywhere near enough to financially justify all the blood, sweat and tears that went into your writing.

Why would anyone subject themselves to such a torturous and thankless routine? I can’t answer for all writers, but I can answer for myself.

I write because that’s who I am.

It doesn’t matter if I have an audience of one million, one thousand, one hundred, one or even zero. I write for my Creator, the author of the cosmos, because it’s what he called me to do. I in turn write for myself, because it’s my purpose, because composing new stories is what fulfills me as a human person. I feel compelled to write, even when it hurts, when I’m busy, depressed or lacking inspiration. It’s built into my DNA. It’s written indelibly upon the mandates of my soul.

I write because it’s in our own pale and imperfect reflections of the universe that we come to know and love the universe itself.

I write because beauty is important to me. I know that nothing I create will ever be perfect, but I strive for perfection anyway.

I write because I’m haunted when I don’t. The days I spend away from my notebooks and computer are days that I feel anxious and restless. Ideas back up in my mind like a clogged up sink, and their continually increasing weight begins to burn my soul like wild fire. I eventually have no choice but to huddle up in the dark after hours and yield to this all-consuming force.

I write because I have a passion for creating things. I liken the difficulties encountered when crafting a new tale to the pangs of childbirth. When the pushing is over, when you’re finally laying down in bed exhausted, sweat beading on your forehead, when the challenge of giving birth to an idea is finally over, you can at last gaze upon the child of your mind with stupid giddy love and wonder. It doesn’t matter that your child isn’t perfect, because the child is yours and you love it anyway.

In short, I write because I’m a writer. In the end, that’s the only reason that should matter.

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Book Review: Stephen King’s “Doctor Sleep”

Doctor Sleep BookcoverSynopsis

Doctor Sleep begins when eight year old Danny Torrance is visited by Mrs. Massey, who hails from the haunted Overlook hotel, which burned to the ground in a boiler accident. Frightened (though not entirely surprised) to discover that the Overlook’s ghosts have followed him to his new home, Danny becomes withdrawn and refuses to speak until his mother Wendy calls Dick Halloran, Danny’s friend and rescuer from The Shining, a man who shares Danny’s psychic abilities.

Halloran teaches the boy how to lock these spirits away in the back of his mind, so that they can never bother him again.

Fast forward. Danny is now Dan, a man who’s made some bad decisions. Like his father, Dan is an alcoholic with a raging temper. It isn’t until he hits rock bottom, lands in Frazier, New Hampshire, and scores a much needed job at the Teenytown Railway that he begins to piece his life back together. He admits to his boss Kingsley that he has a problem, begins attending AA meetings and vows to give up drinking.

One day, Dan’s old childhood friend Tony appears and leads him to a hospice, where he’s able to use his abilities to provide comfort to the dying. It’s here that he earns the nickname “Doctor Sleep.”

The years following are good to Dan. Though he’s haunted by past sins, he now has a roof over his head and a purpose for his life. It’s during this time that Dan begins to receive telepathic messages on a blackboard in his room from a little girl named Abra Stone, who, unbeknownst to him, has befriended Tony. Like Dan, she has the shining. For a while, the messages are light-hearted in nature, and Dan contents himself by making the occasional reply.

One day, a thirteen year old Abra suddenly has a vision in which a boy with a baseball glove is tortured and murdered. She sends a frantic message to Dan, saying, “they’re killing the baseball boy!” A while later, a flyer for missing children comes in the mail with his picture. She places her hand on the image, closes her eyes and casts her mind out to where the murder took place, hoping that perhaps she can somehow send information to the boy’s family to help them find closure.

While looking, Abra inadvertently enters the mind of Rose the Hat, leader of the “True Knot.” The True feed on “steam,” the psychic energy possessed by children like Abra. Trading places, Rose finds herself abruptly shunted into the girl’s body. Shocked by her power, Rose decides that she must be hunted down soon, both for her steam and because she knows too much. Realizing the trouble she’s in, a frantic Abra reaches out to Dan for help.

After meeting with her in secret and talking about the shining as well as the murder, Dan enlists the aid of Billy, an old friend and ex co-worker of the Teenytown Railway, and John, Abra’s pediatrician as well as a fellow member of AA. Together, they concoct a plan to deal with the True before they can deal with Abra.

Plot

Doctor Sleep picks up where The Shining leaves off, creating a seamless transition from the latter to the former. Doctor Sleep stands on its own and doesn’t rely on The Shining to tell a complete story, but the two share a profound connection such that both books find their fulfillment in each other.

For a while, it seems as if the details about Danny’s childhood following his experience at the Overlook are disjoint from the rest of the story, and that they serve solely as a bridge into his adult years as Dan Torrance. But these early events, most notably the creation of mental lock boxes into which Danny traps the ghosts from his past, come back to play a major role in the novel’s conclusion, making it an integral part of the whole.

Doctor Sleep unfolds in a world that is far more advanced than the 1970’s in which The Shining takes place. When Abra and Dan begin communicating, they not only use the shining, but ordinary email, making for a perfect blend of technology and magic, a theme that King has explored before.

In the final chapters, we come full circle, to the land where the Overlook once stood. It’s now owned by the True, and it’s here that Dan and Abra fight for their lives. The conclusion is unexpected, and is (not unpleasantly) atypical of many of King’s books.

There are three surprises, each more shocking than the last. The first comes about three quarters of the way through the book, and concerns both Dan and Lucy, Abra’s mother. The second is a ghost from the past, and is related to the lock boxes we encountered in the first few chapters. The third and final revelation comes at the very end. It’s another ghost from the past, one that ultimately plays a critical and unexpected role in Dan’s and Abra’s final showdown with the True.

There were a couple of problems.

First, the True’s infection with the measles, which came from the baseball boy’s steam, was a little far-fetched. Measles is a physical ailment transmitted by an airborne virus; I fail to see how such a disease could be transmitted through a spiritual medium.

Second, there were a few anachronisms in King’s description of the internet that, as a technical person, I found a little annoying. In particular, he used the terms “IMing” and “screen names,” both of which are relics of the nineties and early two thousands and are rarely used today.

Characters

In the first few chapters, Danny, though he’s only eight, seems much older, in both the language he uses and the way he thinks. I suppose this is understandable, given his ability to read minds from a very early age as well as his traumatic experience at the Overlook, both of which forced him to grow up very quickly.

Unfortunately, like Jack, Danny inherits a propensity for drinking as well as a temper, and wastes most of his young adult life in a drunken stupor. When interviewing for his job at the Teenytown Railway, Dan wonders if his experience is like his father’s, when he interviewed at the hotel after losing his teaching job due to out-of-control anger. He even uses the words “officious prick” during his initial encounter with Kingsley. Like father, like son.

Yet, we have hope for a good ending, because unlike Jack Torrance, Dan has not only the will to overcome, but also additional help from his AA meetings. Despite Dan’s initial impression of Kingsley, he goes on to befriend the man, who is himself an alcoholic and who becomes Dan’s AA sponsor. Dan’s care for his patients, and later his love for Abra and his desire to protect her, both give us hope that his own story will turn out better than Jack’s.

The revelation that Halloran was forced to endure sexual abuse as a child at the hands of his uncle was heartbreaking, paling in comparison only to the childhood experiences of Andrea Steiner (nicknamed Andi Snakebite), a member of the True Knot who, before her Turning, was repeatedly raped by her own father.

What’s fascinating about both cases are the different ways in which Halloran and Andi reacted to a similar upbringing.  While Halloran purged the demons from his life and went on to do good, Andi allowed herself to be consumed by hatred for her father, and by extension hatred for all men. Though tragic, it’s no surprise that Andi would eventually be inducted into the True Knot and become one of the bad guys.

Perhaps most heartbreaking of all is the transformation of Abra from a sweet innocent girl to a teenager who has witnessed torture and death, who has seen what no child should ever have to see. She is forever tainted by a desire for revenge. It’s one of many scars, both physical and psychological, inflicted by Rose the Hat.

Style

The writing in Doctor Sleep is just as lucid and dreamlike as that in The Shining, yet more structured and tightly controlled, especially in flashbacks and dream sequences. You can see that King’s writing, like Danny himself, has grown and evolved over the past thirty six years.

King writes from an omniscient point of view. It’s difficult for a narrator to wield so much power without crushing the unique points of view of each character, resulting in a read that falls flat and dry. But King is a master of the craft and pulls it off remarkably well. He manages to delve into the thoughts and perceptions of each character, despite the mostly detached nature of the narrator’s voice. An omniscient narrator also has the power to jump backward and forward through time, yet King only ever steps beyond the strict bounds of the present to foreshadow or add depth to the story, which only adds suspense.

While King has mastered the omniscient point of view, I will level against him one small criticism. The narrator necessarily keeps his opinions mostly to himself, and serves primarily as our eyes and ears, our window into the thoughts and actions of the characters. But on occasion, this transparent voice rises up to express its own unique political opinions in the same detached style, as if they were well established and objective facts. We read sarcastic comments about Bush’s “spectacular war in Iraq” and Ronald Reagan’s “distrustful smile.” These would be fine if they were the thoughts and feelings of the characters themselves, but are inappropriate when expressed as the opinions of an otherwise objective omniscient narrator. With the power of omniscience comes the responsibility to remain a neutral observer.

Other Thoughts

Like many of his books, King makes connections to other stories. While driving out to retrieve the baseball glove that belonged to the boy who’s murder Abra telepathically witnessed, Dan begins to explain the shining to John:

“[…]If you think the shining begins and ends with paltry shit like telepathy, you’re way short.” He paused. “There are other worlds than these.” (Page 300)

Of course, “there are other worlds than these” are the famous last words uttered by Jake Chambers in the first book of the Dark Tower series, The Gunslinger, shortly before plunging to his death in an abandoned mine.

The consumption of steam by the True is reminiscent of the demon Tak from The Regulators, who feeds on the life essence of those he kills.

There’s a scene where Dan helps a dying patient named Charlie cross over. It brought tears to my eyes. I’m not sure if it was just the beauty of King’s words, the fact that I also share some of Charlie’s fears about death or both.

Conclusion

Stephen King is a remarkable writer. The lucidity of his vision and the prosaic nature of his writing has me head over heels every time I read one of his books. I was ecstatic when I discovered that King had written a sequel to The Shining after thirty six years, though I was also trepidatious, fearing that the second book would be incapable of doing justice to the first. I am pleased to report that Doctor Sleep is a worthy successor.

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Am I The Hero or The Villain?

Hero and Villain
Image licensed by Shutterstock.

In literature, there are two roles that manifest themselves over and over again: the hero and the villain.

The hero is the one who’s not only content with living a decent life, but goes above and beyond. The hero doesn’t just meet but exceeds expectations. The hero goes out of his way to save the day.

The villain is the one who not only does evil, but revels in it. The villain doesn’t simply do wrong out of weakness, but finds his purpose in the pain and suffering of others.

The friction between the hero and the villain is fierce, and it sparks the fire that fuels countless stories. Both the hero and the villain tell us something about the nature of humanity; they teach us about the internal forces that motivate our thoughts and actions.

Therefore, when considering who you relate to, you might ask yourself, “am I the hero or the villain?”

Evidence That You’re the Hero

Have you ever stood up for a just cause? It might have been a principle you believed in deeply. Or perhaps you defended a friend or loved one against bullying, gossip or slander. Maybe, in a remarkable feat of love and courage, you went so far as to stand up for a total stranger.

Have you ever loved at the expense of your personal needs and desires? You might have been a friend, a son, a daughter, a father, a mother or a spouse. Maybe you’ve dedicated your life to raising a family.

Have you ever given to someone in need? You might have provided for someone’s material necessities by donating money, food or clothing. Or perhaps you attended to someone’s emotional necessities by providing a shoulder to cry on. Maybe you were present in someone’s life when they were in need of comfort. You might have given something as simple as a smile.

Have you ever found something valuable, discovered who it belonged to and returned it instead of keeping it for yourself?

Have you ever expressed simple gratitude for what you have instead of taking it for granted? Even better, have you ever expressed your gratitude for someone else’s success, instead of envying them for it?

Have you ever been tempted by evil, but refused to act because you knew it was wrong?

While this is by no means an exhaustive list, if you answered yes to any of the questions above, then without a doubt you have played the part of the hero.

Evidence That You’re the Villain

Have you ever been a bully? Have you ever attacked and injured another, either with your thoughts or with your words?

Have you ever stood by and allowed something evil to take place when it was within your power to stop it? You might have refused to stand up for something you believe in, or you might have looked the other way while someone was under attack.

Have you ever stolen something that didn’t belong to you? It might have been worth as much as one thousand dollars or as little as one.

Have you ever lied to someone about something they had the right to know? Perhaps you were scared and wanted to avoid getting in trouble.

Have you ever spent an inordinate amount of time chasing after material wealth at the expense of family and friends?

Have you ever ignored a loved one, friend or stranger in need? Perhaps the need was material and you chose not to give food or money when you could have afforded to do so. Perhaps the need was emotional and you refused to acknowledge them or give them comfort.

Have you ever used someone as a tool for personal gain?

Have you ever harbored a grudge or sought vengeance against another?

Have you ever willfully desired that grave misfortune or harm befall another? Worse, have you ever acted on that desire?

If you answered yes to any of the questions above, then you have certainly played the part of the villain.

“I’m Confused.”

If you were honest with yourself, you probably found evidence that you were both. So, which is it? Are you the hero or the villain?

In practice, the terms hero and villain are relative. The archetypes are two ends of a vast spectrum, with each of us residing somewhere in-between.

Showing off my mad graphic design skills!
Showing off my mad graphic design skills!

Becoming The Hero

While none of us will ever be the archetypal hero we desire to be, with hard work and dedication, we can come close. It’s a slow but fruitful journey from one end of the spectrum to the other, a road paved with self examination and good works.

Everyday, you must sit down with yourself and ask, “how have I been the villain?” You must be honest and you must be willing to face some ugly truths. When you have the answers you seek, you must actively work to purge those villainous desires from your heart so that the next day, you can be better than you were the day before. If you make this a frequent habit, you will find in the fullness of time that you have drifted remarkably close to the role of the hero.

What Exactly Is A Hero?

To be a hero, you need not fight crime or pull people from burning buildings. You must only be courageous enough to recognize and face the villain within yourself, to turn your back on him by doing good. Extraordinary feats of bravery are certainly heroic, but they are not the criteria by which heroism is defined.

There are silent heroes all around us. They are the ones who love. They are the ones who attend to others. They are the ones who do their part to make their small corner of the world a better place.

The archetypal hero is an ideal that we will never fully realize in this life. But that doesn’t mean we can’t come close.

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What Are Your Favorite Books?

For my sixth blog, I thought I’d try something a little different. Since I love to read, and I’m assuming that you do too, I’d like to learn more about your favorite books.  What stories are you head-over-heels for and why? I’ll kick off the conversation by telling you about three of mine.

The Dark Tower Series, by Stephen King

The Gunslinger Cover Art
Book #1 of The Dark Tower series

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

So starts King’s enigmatic work. This lengthy epic revolves around Roland of Gilead’s quest for the Dark Tower, the lynchpin not just of time and space, but of all realities. These are the books that tie together all of King’s other works, his own “literary Dark Tower.”

This series comprises what is, all at once, an epic fantasy and a classic western. Roland of Gilead is the last of the gunslingers, crack shot gun toting cowboys who also happen to be royalty, knights errant, the fabled peacekeepers of old. As a post apocalyptic wasteland where space and time are stretching and running down like a worn out clock, Roland’s world is at once familiar and strange. It feeds on our fear of destruction, not just of the world, but of all existence, for if the Dark Tower fails, all realities will fall into ruin with it.

The Dark Tower explores nothing less than the mysteries of creation and existence. What are space and time? Is there such a thing as fate (known to Roland as “Ka”)? The Dark Tower examines the dual natures of magic and science, and ponders how the two are related.

One thing that stands out is King’s remarkable ability to intertwine other works of literature (not just his own) into the story. In fact, the story itself is based on a Robert Browning poem called Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came. The Dark Tower offers alternate accounts of their origins, origins which serve the Tower, blurring the distinction between reality and fantasy.

This epic tale was strongest in the first four books. I was utterly spellbound. Unfortunately, by the fifth installment, the series fell apart and the magic was broken. Too many last minute additions (things like vampires and the Low Men) as King struggled to find a place in The Dark Tower for all of his previous stories, as well as an anti-climactic and existentially unfulfilling conclusion, made the tail end of the series painful to read.

Why am I counting The Dark Tower among my favorites if the series ended so poorly? Because the first four books were four of the best books I’ve ever read. And to be fair, it must’ve been quite difficult for King to live up to not only the great cosmic questions posed by The Dark Tower in the beginning, but also twenty six years of anticipation and hype.

All things considered, The Dark Tower is a formidable work of literature and a worthwhile investment.

Harry Potter, by J.K. Rowling

Sorcer's Stone Cover
Book #1 of the Harry Potter series

I know. Everyone loves Harry Potter. The thing is, there’s a reason these books are so popular.

In one aspect, Harry Potter is the consummate fairy tale, filled with magic, exposing the bizarre wonders which lie cloaked beneath the thin veneer of a supposedly ordinary world. What really makes this series shine and stand out from the typical fairy tale, however, is not the fantasy setting itself, but the characters.

From the smallest details — their mannerisms, physical descriptions and dialog — to more general themes — their emotions, desires and motivations — the characters in Harry Potter strongly reflect the complexities of real people. Like the world of magic, which lies just beneath the surface world of the muggles, a very deep and meaningful exploration of good versus evil takes place just beneath the fairy tale surface.

But Harry Potter is good versus evil with a twist.

The villains (all but a few, at least) are plainly bad, but  conflicted. Draco Malfoy, for example, does great evil, but his conscience is disturbed. By the end of the last book, he’s left standing on platform nine and three quarters, averting his gaze from Harry and his friends, shamed and embarrassed.

The “good guys” are not perfect but flawed, their deeds marred by less than noble acts. The students who ultimately save the day often do so by lying and breaking the rules. Professor Slughorn is not only a coward, but a man heavily motivated by self-interest and greed. We even discover that Professor Dumbledore himself, the man we all believed could do no wrong, wasn’t as innocent in his young adult years as we once believed. This discovery, which comes as a great shock to Harry and his friends via Rita Skeeter’s eposé of Dumbledore’s life post mortem, forces them to come to terms with the morally ambiguous nature of even the greatest heroes.

The humanity of Rowling’s work is undeniable and profound. For that reason, I hope these books will someday find their place among the classics.

The Stranger, by Albert Camus

The Stranger Cover Art
The Stranger, by Albert Camus

Depending on your translation, you may also know this book as The Outsider.

The story opens with the main character, Meursault, thinking about the recent death of his mother. From the very first paragraph, we realize that something is amiss. Meursault is bewilderingly detached. He doesn’t seem to care one way or the other about the passing of his mother, and when the funeral is over, he returns home, undisturbed, to continue living a dull disinterested life.

Through his interactions with others, even as he makes his eventual decent into darkness, we get the sense that Meursault just doesn’t care, that he’s decidedly indifferent about everything, including the evil acts of those he surrounds himself with. Only when the walls begin to close in around him and he realizes that the hollow shell which he calls life is seriously threatened does he begin to consider that he might not want to lose his life after all.

The Stranger is the bitterly ironic tale of a man who doesn’t appreciate his life until it’s in mortal peril, and is, among other things, a sobering reflection on the brevity of life. In pondering Meursault’s fate, we are reminded to always be grateful for what we have while we have it.

How About You?

What books are you obsessed with and why?

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