September 21

Visualizing as a Reader [Books]

Here’s a question for you: What do you see when you read a story? Is it just the words on the page, or do you picture the setting and characters? Does a lot of description help your imagination, or do you prefer sparse description so you can fill in the blanks with your imagination?

As a reader, I’m not a big fan of too much description. I like to know the lay of the land, but with a brief summary. I don’t need to know the patterns on the furniture or the wattage of the lightbulbs in the table lamps. In a way, it seems like overcompensation by the writer. Woman reading a book in bed.

If I had a choice, I’d prefer to read a story with little description rather than too much. I like to be an active reader, to pause as I’m reading and allow the scene, the sights and smells, to come together in my mind. 

Of course, it also depends on the story. Some stories call for more description. Fantasy and science fiction, for example, deal with different worlds, creatures, magic, and alien technology. In these cases, more description can help the reader to immerse themselves into the story.

When I first started writing fiction, I thought it was important to go into as much detail as possible. I’d describe my character’s hair, eye color, height, weight, shoe size, favorite color, what they had for dinner the night before. Well, not all of that, but you get the idea. It made my stories bloated and dense. 

The more I read, however, the more I learned about what I liked as a reader. In turn, I began applying these things to what I wrote. As the saying goes, write stories that you want to read. I think it would be better phrased as, write stories that you would enjoy reading. Young boy reading a book.

This brings me back to visualization. When I write fiction, I do picture my characters in my mind, but I try not to convey too much of that to the page. I want my readers to picture them the way they want to. When I write about a young woman with dark hair, the reader can imagine her as being white, Black, Hispanic, or Asian. I think it allows the reader to better immerse themselves if they can see who they want to see, instead of being forced to see what’s in my head.

Do you have a preference when it comes to reading stories? Do you like to be an active reader, filling in the blanks with your imagination? Or do you like to have the writer paint the picture for you? I’m curious to know.

RB

September 9

Bradbury Challenge – Update 2 [Writing]

So far, so good.

I’ve read another book, Packing for Mars, and been working my way through Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. The latter is for my ‘poem a day’. I’ve read Leaves of Grass many, many times over the years. It’s one of the greatest poetry collections, so raw and pure, and I find it inspiring. A perfect accompaniment to this challenge.

The story is also coming along. I’m just over halfway through the first draft. I estimate the ‘halfway’, though. The story is leading me along and I really only have a rough idea of where I hope it will take me. It feels like it’s getting there, like I’ve gotten to the point where things are beginning to come together for a confrontation, a revelation, then a resolution.

I’ve been enjoying the routine and I feel like it’s making a positive difference in my creativity. I feel more inspired to write, I’ve had more ideas popping into my head, and I’m even seeing the world around me a bit differently. What I mean is, I’m not seeing it in a two-dimensional, black-and-white way. I’m seeing more nuance, color variations, more beauty.

For example, there’s a butterfly bush in the front yard. I don’t know what kind it is, but it produces these tiny orange flowers and small black berries. Over the past couple of weeks, the bush has been attracting a wide variety of butterflies. Black and yellow, bright yellow, black and blue, Monarchs, and some too small to identify from my seat in the living room.

Now they’ve been out there all summer, the bush and the butterflies, but it’s only recently that they’ve been catching my attention. I’ll see the fluttering wings out of the corner of my eye, and I stop what I’m doing – reading, watching television, sketching – and spend the next twenty or thirty minutes just sitting and watching these little guys (and girls, I’m sure) dancing among the flowers.

I think this is due to a change in perspective, which in turn is the result of the Bradbury Challenge. Pushing myself to be more creative is changing the way I see the world around me. In a positive way, of course. I think that’s amazing. Ray Bradbury

I’ll have my second short story draft completed in a few more days (barring too much distraction from the butterflies), and then it’s on to the next. I’m still not sure how far I’m going to take this before I stop to work on the completed drafts. Or maybe I’ll work the editing process into the challenge.

So many possibilities.

RB

September 7

Review – Packing for Mars [Books]

Mary Roach enjoys being a writer. It comes across in every one of her books. It’s not surprising since she gets to investigate, research, and even get hands-on with her subject matter. Packing for Mars is no exception. Of course, she gets to hang out at NASA and spend the day with astronauts. What’s not to love about it?

As far as non-fiction is concerned, this is a fun read. Roach throws herself into her research, speaking with astronauts, NASA administrators, researchers, and inventors. Her focus isn’t just on the parts of the space program we read about. She also delves into some of the less-known but just as interesting aspects.

There’s a chapter on food and eating in zero-gravity. Waste disposal, both in the early days and with modern technology. And yes, there’s even a chapter on sex in space. I’m still not certain if it sounds sexy or incredibly awkward. In zero-g, a body in motion stays in motion, if you catch my meaning.

It’s not a great book, however. While I enjoy Roach’s writing style and her wit, I felt like she spent too much time focusing on the history of the space program at NASA. It was interesting, but for example, she spends more than a chapter writing about the first two chimps the went into space. It didn’t really feel like it needed this much attention.

The book is subtitled, “The Curious Science of Life in the Void”, and she does touch upon this, but I feel the book looked back far more than it looked forward. If that makes sense. I would have preferred to have read more about where we are going, rather than where we’ve been. I understand laying a foundation, giving readers some context and history, but that seemed to be her focus.

I’m a huge fan of NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and all the different companies, institutes, and universities that contribute to the exploration of space. I think it’s important to explore and research everything we can out there. As Roach notes in her book, yes, the money could arguably be better spent on terrestrial issues – housing, education, medicine – but, I would argue, we don’t know what we might find out there that could benefit everyone down here.

Roach does note many things that we currently have thanks to the space program. Everything from microwave ovens to smartphones, medical procedures, cybernetics, computer components, none of which would be here if we hadn’t gone out there.

Packing for Mars is a fun read. I imagine I’d be just as giddy and excited as Roach seems to be when she rides in the ‘Vomit Comet‘, or when she hangs out with both astronauts and cosmonauts. Who wouldn’t be? Trajectory for zero gravity maneuver

If you aren’t familiar with the space program and all the various aspects of it, then you’ll find this book an interesting read. It shies away from the highly technical stuff, no rocket science needed. Instead, it’s mostly about the people – plus a few chimps and dogs – that helped to advance our knowledge.

If nothing else, you’ll come away from this book with a deeper appreciation of what astronauts go through, the highs and lows, and how much work goes into the simplest process to ensure safety. Think of this as a science book for the non-scientist.

RB

September 3

Review – The Demon-Haunted World [Books]

There are good books and there are great books. In the realm of non-fiction, I’d place Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, to be in the latter category.The Demon-Haunted World book cover

Sagan, without argument, was one of our great minds. If you grew up in the 1970s or 1980s, you knew who he was. His television program, Cosmos, was one of the most-watched shows ever. And the thing I always liked about him was that he always came across as a down-to-earth person. Just one who was smarter than everyone else in the room.

The Demon-Haunted World was published in 1995, which was a transitional period in the world of technology and science. The internet was becoming a big deal, Windows 95 was released, the first Sony PlayStation went on sale, the Galileo Probe entered Jupiter’s atmosphere, and the existence of a Top Quark was announced by the scientific community. 

I think much of this got Sagan thinking about progress and how it can have both good and bad affects on society. What he ended up doing was writing (along with co-author and life partner Ayn Druyan) a eerily accurate forecast of where we are today.

Photo of Carl SaganSagan, obviously, was a proponent of science. As an astrophysicist, he was able to see things from a wider perspective than the average person, and coupled with his joy of knowledge and learning, he did his best to get people interested in science and its place in our lives.

I think The Demon-Haunted World does a good job of extolling the importance of science education in schools, as well as for the general public. But at the same time, it also serves as a warning about anti-science mentalities and how a lack of basic scientific knowledge can be dangerous and insidious. 

Sadly, many of the things he predicted that could happen if science education were to be de-emphasized have come to pass. Roughly one-third of the US population rejects science. We can see it in with how easily people are swayed by unsupported rumors and theories, who reject scientific research in exchange for ‘gut instinct’ and social-media research.

I found myself repeatedly shaking my head while reading this book as I realized how right Sagan was, and how disappointed he’d be if he were alive today.

If nothing else, this book demonstrates the importance of science in our lives, the importance of science education, and the importance of critical thinking skills. These things have taken a back seat in school curriculums, and unfortunately, society is suffering because of it. 

The Demon-Haunted World is a well-written, thoughtful, and thought-provoking book. It’s a shame that the people who would benefit the most from it aren’t likely to read it.

Regardless, I recommend it for anyone with an interest in science, psychology, sociology, and critical thinking. I learned a lot from reading it. Even decades after his death, Sagan can still teach us something important. 

RB

August 3

An Author Shout-Out [Writing]

I was incredibly lucky to get an early read of Mackenzie Littledale’s upcoming mini-short story collection last week. It’s well-written, passionate, and stuck with me long after I finished the last page. I’ll be buying a copy once it’s published September 1, 2021, and I’ll write an official review then. Don’t want to spoil anything!

I’ve was blown away by her previous collection, Testing the Ties That Bind. She’s a talented writer and has a unique voice, one that I haven’t encountered before. If you’re interested you can read my review of that collection here.

For what it’s worth, I think it’s important for writers to support one another. Writing can be a lonely endeavor, sitting for hours with no companionship other than the characters on the page. But it’s also incredibly rewarding, especially when we write something special.

If you have a moment, please check out Mackenzie’s website and her other work. Also, be sure to support the less-famous writers out there. Big-name writers usually produce good stories, but there are a lot of unknown writers out there creating amazing worlds. We just have to take a chance on them.

RB

July 16

Book Review – Buddhism Without Beliefs [Books]

I’ve been a follower of Buddhist philosophy for over twenty-five years. Not the religious aspect of it. I can do without that. But the philosophy behind it, the way to look at life, at the people around me, my perception of my world, that all appeals to me. And although I’m far from perfect, I try to adhere to the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path as best I can.Person meditatingI’ve read quite a few books about Buddhism, as well. Of course, they’ve all been written from a religious angle. So when I’ve worked on educating myself, I’ve had to focus on the rational points and read the spiritual more like mythology. What I’ve been looking for is a book that doesn’t denigrate the religion, but would allow me to better understand the real teachings, the words the Buddha taught without filter and interpretation.

Luckily, I stumbled upon Buddhism Without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor. Here I found what I’d been looking for, a simple deconstruction of Buddhism with a focus on the philosophy. Buddhism Without Beliefs book cover.

At a simple 115 pages (plus a few more covering sources), Batchelor argues that the Buddha never set out to create a religion. Instead, he simply wanted to help people better themselves and the world around them through a handful of basic tenets. No gods or goddesses, no spirituality, just a focus on understanding how we can improve ourselves mentally and better adapt to the world around us.

I posted earlier this week about a line from the book that resonated with me, and that was only one of dozens that stuck with me.

Batchelor, a practicing Buddhist, trained in monasteries and has been teaching for decades. I found his insight to be extraordinary. He gently, and without denigration, breaks down the how’s and why’s of Buddhist teachings, stripping away the religious aspects to reveal a simple and easily understood path to understanding ourselves.

Even if you aren’t religious, or are a following of a specific dogma, Buddhism Without Beliefs can still have something for you. Outside of meditation and practice, there is a lot of practical points that can help you to calm your inner turmoil, help you understand your actions and reactions, and maybe even bring you some peace of mind.

Brain and heart on balance scale.I highly recommend this book. Like I mentioned above, it’s a quick read, but even so, there’s a lot to unpack. Give it a try and see what speaks to you. You have nothing to lose, but so much to gain.

“So what are we but the story we keep repeating, editing, consoling, and embellishing in our heads?” – Stephen Batchelor

RB

July 12

A Little Motivation [Creativity]

“Commitment to the most worthy purpose is of little value if we lack confidence in our ability to realize it.”

– Stephen Batchelor, Buddhism Without Beliefs

I’ve been reading the aforementioned book the past few days, and this line stuck out to me. I read it several times because it resonated and made me think about my commitment to writing fiction.

I think one thing that many writers struggle with is confidence. Not just with themselves and their ability to tell a good story, but also confidence in the stories themselves, the characters we create, the plots and dialogue. There’s always that little voice in the back of our heads whispering, “Are you sure?”. Man with question marks over his head.

I’ve been writing a long time, probably close to forty years. I’ve written a lot of stories, some good and some bad, but regardless of the outcomes I continue to do it. Out of, say, one-hundred stories, maybe twenty or thirty were what I would consider good. The rest, well, I’ve categorized them as practice pieces.

And yet, I still doubt myself and my abilities. Why? Hard to say for sure, but there are arguably several reasons. First and foremost, I didn’t get much support for my writing until I was in my late twenties. Mostly I was told it was a cute hobby and that I should focus on something real so I can set my sights on a ‘real’ job. Either that, or my creative output was ignored.

Despite that lack of support, I continued to write. Doubt was always there, looking over my shoulder, whispering in my ear, but I persevered. The stories and poems were in my head, and I transferred them to the page. Even when I felt no one cared and that I was writing in a vacuum, I kept at it.

Why? Because I was committed to it. I love to write, I love to tell stories, to paint pictures with words. The thing that helped the most was when I decided that I was going to write for myself. What I mean is, I decided to stop worrying about what others thought, or if they even cared, and wrote things that I wanted to read.

That the reason my stories cross genres. My reading preferences are all over the place – fiction, non-fiction, weird fiction, speculative, horror, fantasy, cyberpunk, literary, historical – and in turn that influences my writing.

Once I realized I didn’t have to receive acknowledgement from others I found a new sense of freedom in writing. I became more confident. Sure, there’s still that whisper in my ear, but now I ignore it, swat it away and focus on the page in front of me. I can do it written on paper.

It doesn’t matter where you are with your creativity. Doesn’t matter if you’re a writer, a painter, a songwriter. We’re all going to doubt ourselves, some more than others, but we can’t let it stop us. We have to stay committed, focused, and continue to do what we love. That’s all that matters. Doing something you love.

When you think about giving up, tossing your laptop in the trash, going back to binge-watching something on television, remember this: you don’t have to listen to that negative voice in your head. You have one lifetime, a handful of decades, to enjoy yourself, so why not do the things you love? Be creative, be silly, experiment, try new things.

Don’t let doubt stop you from expressing yourself. Be committed to your creativity.

RB

July 7

Book Review – The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch [Books]

Philip K. Dick is one of the founders of modern science fiction. I see him as a writer who straddled the line between the old guard – Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein – and the new school. He, along with writers like Harlan Ellison, ushered in a deeper and more surreal aspect to the genre. Philip K Dick

If you aren’t familiar with his work, Dick focused a lot of attention on the human psyche, the question of what’s real and what’s illusion, as well as the impact of drugs and religion on how we interpret the world.

I’ve read a few of his other works and loved Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. But the thing is, while he was helping to change the landscape of science fiction, he still wrote like his predecessors. What I mean is, he focused more on the ideas than he did on the narrative.

Not that it’s a bad thing. Ideas, good ones, can carry the story. With The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, the ideas are so fascinating that I could overlook the storytelling and somewhat dated portrayals of women.

The Three Stigmata Of Palmer EldritchThe basic plot is that in the future, Earth is overheating and the world governing body is drafting ‘volunteers’ to colonize other plants and moons in the solar system. Because the environments are so hostile, most of the colonists are addicted to a drug that lets them inhabit the bodies of some fictional characters as if they were back home. The addicts have turned their experiences into a religion.

Enter Palmer Eldritch, how has returned from a ten year journey to Proxima with a new drug that will replace the old one. This sparks a war with the manufacturer of the current drug. It also starts a debate on whether or not Eldritch is still himself or someone, or something, different.

Mixed into all this is an examination of reality – what is real and how do we know for sure? Religion – how do we determine what to worship and is it really good for us? And the human condition – what are we capable of and how far will we go to achieve our goals?

As I noted above, the narrative is dated and far from poetic, but the ideas themselves are worth the read. Dick was obsessed with reality, identity, and the workings of the mind. If you’ve read any of his other fiction you’ll know what I mean. It’s apparent in just about everything he’s written. 

Also, the story was nominated for a Nebula award in 1965 for Best Novel. 

I feel this novel is on par with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, although not quite as well written. If you enjoy classic science fiction and stories that focus on ideas, then you should pick up a copy of this book. It’ll have you thinking long after the last page. 

RB

June 30

What I Learned From Comic Books [Creativity]

When I was a kid I adored comic books. I was (and still am) a fan of Marvel titles, especially Spider Man, The Incredible Hulk, Doctor Strange, The Silver Surfer, and The Uncanny X-Men. I’d run down to the local convenience store the first of every month and pick up my favorites, along with a few others if I had the extra money. Marvel Comics superheroes.

I would lose myself in those stories. I even dreamt about them at night, imagining myself getting bit by a radioactive spider or turning green and mean if I got angry. Unfortunately, I’d read through them so quickly that I’d grow impatient waiting for the next issues to come out, so I took it upon myself to come up with my own characters.

My childhood superhero creations.
Yes, these are my lame superhero creations!

Yeah, my creations were lame. My excuse is that I was only seven or eight years old and my aspirations were much higher than my skills could reach.

I still read comics every now and then. I especially like to find storylines from when I was a kid so I can relive them, recapture a bit of that childhood wonder. Funny thing is, those comics still speak to me. I can still find storylines and plots that are as poignant today as they were back in the 1970s.

Marvel was good at that. The late, great Stan Lee was ahead of his time, in a way. His stories focused on things like racism, feminism, and equal rights. Marvel’s characters tended to be ordinary people who acquired powers, and even though they were suddenly super strong or fast or magical, they still had to deal with everyday problems. I think that’s why I related to them so much. They were gods acting like humans. They were humans who acquired god-like powers and had to deal with the repercussions.

To me, comics are the perfect conglomeration of words and images. Not only did the writers tell amazing stories, but the artists (pencilers, inkers, letterers) helped to illustrate and illuminate the words. It was inspiring. I wanted to tell stories like that, draw pictures like that, have people read my work and be carried away by it.

Funny thing is, I learned a lot from those comic books. Take the X-Men, for example. These were men and women who were born with genetic mutations that made them different than the rest of the population. Because of this, they were shunned and persecuted, despite the fact they were saving humanity every month. But it made me think about tolerance.

People can’t help who they are. They can’t pick what color their skin is, or their eye color, or that they have a malformed arm or speak with a lisp. We can’t help who we’re attracted to or who we fall in love with. But regardless, people are persecuted and marginalized because of these things and more.

Stan Lee taught me that was wrong. He showed me that everyone is special in their own way, and just because someone is different doesn’t mean they’re a bad person. Our differences make us unique and that’s a good thing.

I think that’s carried over into my own writing. I don’t purposely try to put ‘teaching moments’ into my stories, or preach, or push an agenda. But I often find that there’s some subtext in my stories that hits on some of the things I believe in, like equality and tolerance, empathy and kindness. It’s not always in there, but it slips into a few of them.

Young man reading a comic book.And that’s really what fiction does, it shows us alternative ideas, different perspectives, and it can help us understand ourselves. No, not every piece of fiction does this, but I feel most of it does. We just have to look below the surface to see it.

Comic books often get a lot of grief for being ‘for kids’, or for the costumes the characters wear. I agree that it can’t be easy for a super-heroine to fight villains while wearing a skimpy bikini, but maybe that’s part of her powers…super distraction!

There’s a lot to be said for storytelling in comic books. They may seem simple on the surface, but if you give them a chance I think you’ll find there’s a lot of truth found on those colorful pages.

RB

 

June 23

Book Review – Testing the Ties That Bind [Books]

I always enjoy reading stories by writers I’m unfamiliar with, especially when they exceed my expectations. Mackenzie Littledale’s Testing the Ties That Bind: A Mini Collection of Short Stories is one of those rare collections that does just that.

There are only five stories here, but what it lacks in numbers it makes up for in content. What I like is that Littledale is a strong writer. She takes the reader by the hand and leads them into the lives of these characters. I felt less like an outside observer and more like I was sitting in the room with them, almost as if I could reach out and touch them or participate in the conversations. Testing the Ties That Bind Bookcover

The stories are snippets of real life, real people and real situations. There’s nothing out of the ordinary here, but that’s not a bad thing. What I mean is, the characters were relatable, believable, like your next door neighbors or the family you run into every week at the grocery store. They aren’t heroes or victims. They’re simply real people.

I think that creating authentic characters can be difficult. It’s too easy to slip into stereotypes. Littledale’s cast is diverse, with a range of personalities, fears, phobias, and challenges. Even though the stories were short, I felt connected to the people in them, felt their happiness and their pain.

The stories themselves were also well written. Two of them got to me, made me tear up  – both in sadness and in joy – and put the book aside for a while so I could process what I had just read. The others were just as good, although not quite the emotional gut-punch.

I highly recommend Testing the Ties That Bind. It’s a great companion for a rainy afternoon in bed or a sunny morning on the patio. I think Littledale has a great future as a writer. I’m looking forward to reading more of her work.

RB