A Web of Ink and Paper

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Giles sits in a corner near the back, wearing a dark fedora. He watches as a man enters the coffee shop and places an order for a grande Americano, waits for the man to hand over his money and receive his change, follows the man with his eyes as he makes his way to a seat near a distant window.

The man is not actually a man at all, but something else. Something dangerous.

Giles reaches into his pocket, produces a faded leather notebook and silver fountain pen and begins to write. He works carefully, starting with the coarser, superficial details and slowly working his way to the more refined. They are special words. Words of power.

Giles does his best to capture the essence of the man, though even words such as these are only crude approximations. They reach inside and bind him, pair with flesh and bone and spirit, tearing him out of space and time like a coupon from the local newspaper.

It isn’t until he’s nearly finished that the man by the window notices, and by then he’s already fading like an overexposed negative. He bolts from his seat and stumbles backward, opens his mouth in shock, ambles toward Giles like a wounded soldier.

The patrons of the coffee shop have taken notice. Some scream. Others run. More than a few gawk stupidly, cell phones at the forefront. God, thinks Giles, these are the creatures he’s sworn to protect?

Before the man can take ten steps he’s already disappeared, torn from the fabric of reality and bound forever in a web of ink and paper.

Giles caps his pen, closes the leather notebook and strolls to the door, ready to tackle his next assignment.

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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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A Real Magic Power That You Possess

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The casting of spells is pretty standard fare in fantasy. We read about practitioners of magic, people who have the power to shape the world through the mere utterance of sacred words. Battles are won. Fortunes are found. Lives are forever changed. We find ourselves intrigued, and we idly fantasize about what it might be like were we to possess similar powers.

What if I were to tell you that you do? What if I were to tell you that there are certain words which, when spoken, have the power to change the world?

Words are powerful.

It’s through words that the will exerts its influence over the world. Words, effectively organized and strategically expressed, grab hold of our hearts and persuade us to act in accordance with their desires. Words are forces capable of extraordinary things. They unite people with a common purpose. They give birth to nations and empires. They give wings to scientific and technological breakthroughs that sweep the world, curing diseases and raising the standard of living to new and unparalleled heights.

Can one voice really change the world?

It always starts with a single individual, calling out into an ocean of other voices.

Uttered in isolation, the words wander in the midst of chaos, searching. They soon join with others who are sympathetic to their cause. These other voices soon conform to the will of the original, so that what was once a solitary sound is now a chorus. This chorus continues, tumbling like an avalanche, picking up other voices along the way. Soon these words, originally uttered by a single person, become a deafening maelstrom so fierce in its power that they become difficult or impossible to ignore.

Even words that don’t spread far beyond your circle of influence are capable of great things. Carefully crafted words forge enduring relationships. They give birth to friends, families and communities. They have the power to build people up, to encourage and inspire others in pursuits that, despite your own limited influence, nevertheless have the power to transform the world in unexpected ways.

But words have a dark side.

Like any great and powerful force, words can be used for good or for evil. Words have sparked war and genocide as often as they have inspired peace. They have oppressed as often as they have sought freedom. They have driven people toward suspicion, hate, persecution and murder as often as they have urged tolerance and mutual respect.

With great power comes great responsibility.

We must take great care in what we write and in how we speak. We should avoid gossip, slander and bigotry. We must strive always to tell the truth, to put what we have to say at the service of others. Words uttered in anger and self-interest have the power to destroy lives, relationships, families, communities, even the world as we know it.

Conversely, words uttered with sincerity and loving conviction, with a purpose ordered toward the common good, they have the power to build people up, to heal relationships, to instill fresh ideas and a renewed sense of purpose in a world that has been made better for the presence of your own unique voice.

How will you use this magic power?

The world is full of voices, some changing things for the better, others changing things for the worst. You can use your powers for good or for evil. Which will you choose?

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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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Proof that Magic is Real

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Magic. The word alone conjures all kinds of extraordinary ideas. It’s the foundation of fairy tales. It’s the stuff of dreams. It’s one of the reasons I love fantasy. Magic is mysterious and otherworldly. It’s a step away from the ordinary, an exploration of the bizarre. It’s a light shone into the darkest corners of existence. Of course, magic is limited to storytelling and the imagination. Isn’t it?

On the contrary, I argue that magic is real.

Wait, hold on. Let’s define our terms. What exactly is magic?

Magic eventually boils down into two categories. There’s supernatural magic, which deals primarily with the conjuring of spirits and the manipulation of a world that lies beyond the physical universe. Then there’s natural magic, which is simply a study of nature and the laws that govern its behavior. When I speak of magic here, I refer solely to the latter.

Merlin, in the 1998 NBC mini-series Merlin, recounts his own instruction in magic thusly: “I studied day and night, learned of those unseen forces that hold this world together.” Those “unseen forces that hold this world together” sound as if they belong in the domain of physics, and why not? At its heart, physics concerns itself with the four known fundamental forces of nature and how they shape the universe.

Yes, that’s right.

Natural Magic is Science.

In any sane fictional world, magic has rules. Thus, the magician is tasked with discovering and refining his understanding of what those rules are. The studious magician of fiction is almost always a seasoned scholar, either of books or of practical experience, and has spent a lifetime probing those secret forces of nature that ordinarily remain aloof of common everyday experience.

The alchemist of old was nothing more than the ancient precursor to the modern chemist. Like the modern chemist, he sought to understand the ways in which materials interact with one another. He ran experiments, made observations and took notes.

That’s science.

But science is so ordinary and mundane! When has science ever produced magical results?

The magician of fantasy and the scientist of the real world have more in common than many realize. Like the magician, the scientist has learned to harness and exploit the laws of nature for technological advantage. In reality as well as fiction, this has lead to mind-blowing breakthroughs. We’ve developed nearly instantaneous visual and auditory communication over significant distances. We’ve developed a means of reliably transmitting incredible amounts of energy, capable of powering great hulking machines and lighting cities at night. We’ve developed a means of traveling by flight. We’ve even developed methods of sending men to other worlds.

Sounds magical to me.

But science is logical. It can be explained. Magic is arbitrary and irrational. It defies understanding.

Well, can the laws of nature as revealed by science be fully explained? True, larger and more general aspects of reality can always be broken down and explained by progressively smaller units of knowledge. Why does an object grow hot when it sits on a stove, for example? Because, among other things, the molecules on the stove, which are vibrating very fast, are bumping into the molecules in the object, which aren’t vibrating as fast. This causes them to bounce around more quickly, which we perceive as heat.

We could break the process of inquiry down further. We could ask why faster moving molecules speed up slower moving molecules when they collide. This would inevitably lead to a discussion of momentum and electromagnetic forces. On and on we could go, descending further and further into ever smaller units of knowledge. But at the end of this long and winding chain of questions and answers is something that must simply be accepted, a philosophical brick wall. Ultimately, why do the fundamental forces of nature exist and behave the way they do? Because they do.

And is magic really all that irrational? On the contrary, a believable system of magic must be internally consistent and obey ordered laws. True, there are concessions that must be made. But that’s nothing new. At its roots, science makes the same concessions. Without an axiomatic foundation on which to build, all of science would crumble to the ground.

The only thing that sets science apart from the magic of fiction is that science is a system of natural magic that happens to be real.

Conclusion

Arthur C. Clarke, in his book Profiles of the Future, wrote that, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I go one step further. I argue that advanced science is indistinguishable from magic because it is magic. The only reason we take science for granted is that it’s familiar. But if the roles of reality and fiction were ever reversed, and some denizen of a far off fantasy world were to stumble across the fundamental laws of nature that we accept as part of our daily lives, they would be mystified. For them, it would not be something ordinary, but something extraordinary. For them, it would be magic.

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2 Ways That Characters Are More Intimate Than Best Friends, Husbands and Wives

If you’re like me, reading fiction usually involves an endless string of love affairs and heart breaks. It’s always the same. I meet someone new. I fall in love. I’m on an emotional roller coaster. I burst with joy when my character is happy. My heart aches when my character is hurt. I’ll invest hours of my time into the relationship, only for it to come to a sudden abrupt end when there are no pages left to turn.

The relationship between Reader and Character is intense and intimate. What follows are two ways in which this relationship is more intimate than those we share with our closest friends and spouses.

1. You, Along With the Author, Are a Character’s Co-creator.

In real life, when you meet another person, what follows is purely a process of discovery. Who that person is has already been fully defined, independent of you. A real person always exists outside your mind. You may be lead to believe certain things about who that person is based on your own observations and biases, but whether or not those beliefs are correct has nothing to do with you.

By contrast, while the author might provide you with certain details regarding what a character looks like, what he thinks about or what happens to him throughout the story, he’s only partially defined. It’s up to you to provide the missing pieces. Unlike a real person, your character only has the fullness of his existence inside your mind. As a result, it’s as much a process of creation as it is one of discovery. Together, with the author, you give life to this other person.

The unique role that you have as a character’s co-creator is what allows you to understand him so intimately. Who he is depends in part on who you are. Because of this, you know this person more completely than you could know anyone else.

2. The Relationship Between Reader and Character Has No Boundaries.

In your relationships with real people, there are always boundaries. Between husbands, wives and best friends, there are always secrets. When dealing with real people, you can only completely know yourself. What your friends and spouses experience in their own minds you can only experience imperfectly through what they choose to reveal.

In your relationships with fictional people, this is not the case. In fiction, a character’s innermost thoughts, desires and motivations are all laid bare before you. You can peer directly into a character’s mind and soul. You can know a character better than he knows himself.

Conclusion

There’s a reason we connect so profoundly with well written characters. It’s basic human nature to crave love and intimacy. We strive to know others, for it’s in knowing that we can love. The fictional characters we encounter in stories might not be real, but the love that we have for them most certainly is. It’s a very unique kind of love, one that, in some ways at least, exceeds that which we have even for those real people who we hold closest of all.

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Who Am I?

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Hello! My name is Jeff, and I’m a writer.

Well, hold on.

I should probably lay one secret to rest before we embark on this journey together. My name isn’t really Jeff. It’s James. Jeff Coleman is a pen name that I dreamed up a few months ago, based on the initials of my first and last name. When I first decided to share my stories with the world, I was shy and unsure. I believed that a pseudonym could provide me with comfort and security, and that, to a certain extent, it could protect me from failure. But as time wore on, I began to realize that in order to forge genuine lasting relationships built on friendship and trust, I would ultimately have to put my true self out there, including my real name. I realized that failure is a part of life, and that I could grow closer to my friends and readers by being honest and open about my mistakes from the start. Though I’ve grown attached to the name Jeff and plan to continue using it, I’d like my readers to know who Jeff really is. So, let me extend to you a warm virtual hand in greeting. “Hi, my name is James, and it’s very nice to meet you!”

Now, with that out of the way…

Who am I? That’s not an easy question to answer. It’s not that I don’t know who I am (although I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t always know the answer as well as I’d like.) I just find it difficult to figure out what to say or how to say it. Don’t worry, the irony of being a writer and having trouble describing myself is not lost on me…

Let’s start with the reason for this blog in the first place.

I love to tell stories. I’ve been writing since third grade — in fact, if you’re really lucky, I’ll post the story that started it all, a tale about a leprechaun who loves green food, in a future blog 😉 I’ve always had my “head in the clouds,” as the old cliché goes. There was a very brief period in my life between seventh and eighth grade when I believed I was too old to play and use my imagination and that it was time to start thinking and acting like an “adult.” Thank God I grew out of that!

As a kid, I was obsessed with fantasy. I loved to dream of worlds that were different from our own, and could spend hours exploring the vast and limitless vistas of the imagination. I was picked on a lot growing up, so while the other kids were out socializing or playing sports, I was indoors by myself reading books. It wasn’t great from a developmental point of view, but it did give me a unique perspective, as well as plenty of time to think and imagine.

I also came to love and appreciate the beauty of reality through the lens of science. I was fortunate enough to have a dad who could answer many of the vexing questions that kids will inevitably ask, and his ability to explain things to me in a way that I could understand sparked a fire in my heart that would only grow with time. When I wasn’t dreaming about witches and wizards or knights and dragons, I was thinking about atoms and molecules or electricity and magnetism.

As an adult, my passions began to coalesce into two branches: art and science. In college, I attended a ton of classes in English and Fine Art Photography before finally deciding to transfer into Computer Science, and along the way I had a very intense and passionate love affair with Math and Physics. It’s with both perspectives, art and science, that I’ve attempted to make sense of this strange thing we call the universe.

Interestingly enough, my upbringing was as much religious as it was scientific, and for this reason, I’ve always had a deeply spiritual outlook on life. I’m Catholic by creed, and take my faith seriously, though for many years now I’ve been deeply confused about the things I believe, and have had to ask myself a lot of very tough questions. I’ve had all of my core assumptions repeatedly called into question and have, for years, felt adrift in a sea of uncertainty and anxiety. Yet, for all the discomfort, it’s that very same doubt which has seeded my heart with a profound love of philosophy and a hunger to know and understand exactly what the world is and why it’s here.

When I was younger, I used to worry about doing everything right. I was afraid that minor mistakes could have catastrophic consequences. But now, as I look back on my life, I see just how perfectly everything fits together. I’ve come to view my life as a mosaic built from the smallest of moments which, in and of themselves, seem random and insignificant, yet when brought together form a beautifully choreographed whole. There is no doubt in my mind that we exist in this world for a reason.

And that’s where we come full circle.

I believe that my purpose is to tell stories.

I’m not delusional or arrogant enough to think that my stories are God’s gift to the world, or that without them the world would be a cold and dreary void. Writing is simply a part of who I am. I want to tell stories, and I want to share those stories with others.

What have I been working on?

I published my first short story, The Sign, a few months ago. I’ve also completed the first draft of a middle grade children’s fantasy about a boy who, with a magic wand, accidentally makes his sister disappear. Finally, I’m working on two novels for adults.

Do I have any favorite books?

I’m glad you asked 😉 There are a few books and authors which hold a special place in my heart. They are, in no particular order: “The Dark Tower” and “The Shining,” by Stephen King; “Neverwhere,” “American Gods” and “Coraline” by Neil Gaiman; “Harry Potter,” by J.K. Rowling; and “The Stranger,” by Albert Camus.

Honorable mention also goes to “Charlotte’s Web,” by E.B. White; “The Night Circus,” by Erin Morgenstern; “Ender’s Game,” by Orson Scott Card; and “The Name of the Wind,” by Patrick Rothfuss.

Anything else?

Not really. I just wanted to give you some idea of who I am. A very special bond exists between Writer and Reader, and I believe that this bond is more easily formed when the two know each other first.

And who are you? I’d love for you to introduce yourself in the comments below.

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