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 29

What if it Sucks? [Creativity]

We all wonder this. Anyone who creates anything has this thought every once in a while. I do, as well. I have an idea that I’m excited about, I work on it, maybe a first draft, maybe two. Then that self-doubt creeps in. Is this any good? Will anyone read it? Like it? Tell their friends? Leave a good review?

It can be a downward spiral from there. What’s the point if no one is going to like this story, or even read it? Am I just writing into a void? Should I give up and do something else?

As creators, this type of thinking can kill our motivation. It leads us down a dark path where we get lost amid all the questions, doubts, and fears. Writer resting head on keyboard

Some of us have it worse than others. It depends on the amount of self-confidence you already have in play, coupled with how much support you receive, and how people have reacted to your previous output. We’re human, we can’t help it. Our brains are both our biggest ally and our greatest enemy.

If you’ve listened to my podcast, you might already know how I feel about this. The problem, in my opinion, is that we put too much emphasis on what other people think of us and our work. We gauge success and failure by other people’s reactions. We base our self worth as artists, even as people, on whether or not something likes our output. We even compare ourselves to our peers. Am I doing better than them? Then I’m successful. Are they doing better than me? Then I’ve failed.

That’s bullshit thinking.

The ONLY persoFingers on laptop keyboardn whose opinion you need to worry about it your own. That’s it.

Is this something you would enjoy reading, viewing, or listening to? If yes, then you’re successful. That’s all there is to it. Don’t worry if other people think it sucks. Whatever they may feel or think about it doesn’t really matter. It’s not a fact, it’s their opinion. Art, like humor, is subjective. I may laugh at something that you don’t find funny, just like you may love a book that I found boring. And remember, opinions are like assholes…everybody has one.

This all stems from a recent online conversation I had with someone about a story they’re working on. They wanted to give up because someone else, a friend of theirs, read an early draft and said it sucked. Based solely on that opinion, this writer was ready to give up, chuck it all away and move on to something else.

Luckily, I was able to talk them off the ledge. I basically told them what I wrote above and I reiterated one of my mantras: Write for yourself. Yes, I know, we all want an audience of faithful readers who hang on our every word. The truth is, that may never happen. There are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of writers out there writing stories they hope will get noticed. Some will, some won’t, but in the end it doesn’t matter if the writers are doing it for themselves. As long as you’re writing something that appeals to you, that you’d pick up in a bookstore and read, then you’ve won.

Writing is a lonely profession. We do it alone, just us and our imaginations, and sometimes we really need the validation of someone else to motivate and inspire us. I get it. I’m the same way. But you shouldn’t base your worth as a writer, or as a person, on what other people think. Make yourself happy, first. A happy writer is a good writer. A good writer will find an audience. Just be patient.

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

July 2

What’s the Best Writing Tool? [Writing]

This is one of those topics that can be contentious. There are so many tools available to the modern writer that it can be overwhelming. I can’t promise you that I’ll answer all your questions. However, I think I can provide you with some valid options and, hopefully, help you make an informed decision.

First, when I refer to writing tools, I mean things that help the writer get a story from their head onto the page. Also, I’m not necessary endorsing any particular tool. I’ll cover the ones I’ve used over the years and offer suggestions based on my experience.

Pencils and Pens

Why not start off with a nod to old school writing tools? There’s something to be said for writing the way writers used to do it. To me, writing on paper with a pen or pencil is more organic. It makes me feel like Hemingway or Faulkner and that I should be sitting in a cafe somewhere sipping Cuban coffee.

Hand writing with pen.I also feel more connected to the words on the page when I write freehand. Sure, my hand gets tired much faster than my fingers so when typing, but that doesn’t deter me. If you’ve never written this way I suggest you give it a try. I doubt it’s going to change your life, or your preferred mode of writing, but I think you’ll find it fun and engaging.

Audio Recording

No, that’s not a typo. I’ve read of several authors who never put pen to paper. Instead, they carry a tape recorder or digital voice recorder and simply narrate their story. Later, they’ll either transcribe it themselves – typing it into their computer – or have an assistant do it. Once it’s on the PC (or Mac), they can edit to their heart’s content. Man speaking into tape recorder.

I’ve never tried this, but it sounds interesting. I know that I often work out stories in my head while I’m doing something like taking a walk with the dogs or fiddling about in the backyard. In a way, it’s sort of like telling myself the story. So it makes sense that I could carry a voice recorder with me and talk it out stream-of-consciousness style.

My only concern would be the neighbors thinking I’m weirder than they already do.

Also, keep in mind that most smartphones and tablets come with voice recorders built in. All you have to do is transcribe it later. Or pay someone to do it for you.

Computer Software

Honestly, there are far too many writing software options out there for me to adequately cover them all. However, I will tell you about a few that I use, and have used, and what I think about them.

Obviously, there’s Microsoft Word and Apple Pages. Both are fully-capable word processors and both are free (Pages comes free with most Apple devices; Word has paid versions and a free online version). I tend to use Pages more since I write on a MacBook, but I’ve used Word almost as much in office settings.

I think they both have their pros and cons, but for fiction writing I really don’t like to use either one. I find them to offer too many options and sometimes dealing with formatting can be a pain in the ass. When something on the page doesn’t line up correctly I end up spending WAY too much time trying to figure it out.

Typing on a MacBookOne of the nicer, all-purpose writing programs is Scrivener. It’s not your ordinary word processor. It’s incredibly robust and designed to be used by writers. Scrivener comes with templates for novels, short stories, scripts, and even poetry, and it’s a great tool for formatting ebooks.

However, much like Word and Pages, I find it distracting to write with when I’m working on early drafts. Again, too many options, too many bells and whistles. I often use it towards the end of my writing arc, for laying out short story collections and getting my work ready for print. I’ve been using it for years and recommend that every writer have a copy of this software on their hard drive.

Probably my favorite writing program is called FocusWriter. This is my go-to for first drafts, second drafts, everything up to the final. It’s an incredibly clean interface and you can set it so there are no distractions, no tool bars, no buttons, no pop-ups. Just you and the blank screen.

The other cool thing is that it has some simple customizations to help make your writing experience more engaging. For example, it offers a couple of different themes for the screen. I use the solid black with green font color…sort of like an old computer monitor. It also keeps track of your word count and has a spell checker.

The best part, however, is that you can set daily goals for yourself. You can set it for minutes or number of words, and the program will tell you when you hit that goal each day. I use this when I feel I’m slipping out of my routine and it helps to keep me on track.

Oh, and the very best part…FocusWriter is open-source, so it’s free (although I encourage you to make a donation to the developer).

There You Have It

Every writer has their preference when it comes to their writing tools. But I think it’s important for us to try new things every so often. It helps to keep us from getting complacent. Or bored.

For me, I use a variety of tools. I think of writing like other manual labor jobs, like construction. You have certain tools for certain jobs. I use pencil and paper when writing poetry, Word or Pages for business writing, and FocusWriter and Scrivener for fiction.

The change of scenery will do you good. Try a new tool every so often and see how it affects your writing.

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

June 9

Quote the Writer, Not the Character [Writing]

Okay, I know this will sound strange, but it annoys me when someone quotes a character from a work of fiction instead of the writer. I should let it go, I know, but I think it comes from my belief that writers are under appreciated in general. 

It happens often enough in fiction. I mean, I can understand it to a certain point. People are probably more familiar with the character than the faceless writer. For example, if someone quotes a line from a Sherlock Holmes story, it’s usually attributed to Holmes and not the author, Sir Author Conan Doyle. Elementary, my dear Watson. Sherlock Holmes and Watson illustration.

But I think it’s even more prevalent in television and film. How often do you hear someone quote a line from, say, Casablanca (“Here’s lookin’ at you, kid”) or The Terminator (“I’ll be back”) and attribute it to the character or the actor? Happens all the time.

Casablanca movie poster.

As a writer, I find it annoying. I mean, after I’ve spent time and effort to write a great story I would prefer to be the one credited with a memorable line. That came out of my head, from my imagination. I feel like it’s only fair.

And, full disclosure, I’m guilty of it, as well. I figured I should own up before someone goes back through my old posts and highlights every instance where I quoted a character. I’m sure there are more than a handful.

My partner has tried to help. After telling me to get over it – repeatedly – she’ll then suggest I try looking at it from another perspective. Writers want to be read, and as long as people are reading my stories, why should I care if they quote me or one of my characters? The character came from my head, as well, so if they get the credit, I sort of get it, too. 

She’s right, of course. You can quote me on that.

RB

 

June 8

Saying Goodbye to Dick Robinson [Books]

Just a quick post to say thank you and goodbye to one of the people who helped me develop a love of books and reading. Although you may not know who he is just from his name, Mr. Robinson had a huge impact on getting young people to read here in the U.S. Dick Robinson

For nearly five decades, Mr. Robinson was the CEO of Scholastic Books, Inc. If you aren’t familiar with Scholastic Books, they have been arranging and hosting book fairs in public schools since the 1970s.

Interesting note: The article at Publishers Weekly states that Scholastic starting hosting book fairs in schools in 1981. However, I remember attending the fairs when I was in elementary school in the 1970s. Weird…

To understand how big of an impact Scholastic has had on the book business, consider they are responsible for approximately 120,000 yearly book sale events. That is getting a lot of books into the hands of a lot of kids. And I think that’s amazing.

One of the cool things about Mr. Robinson is that he considered reading a civil right. He was adamantly anti-censorship and incredibly pro-literacy. He also acknowledged that Scholastic played a big part in broadening children’s understanding of the world around them. Scholastic books logo

He once said: “Research says that if children choose and own their books, they are much more likely to finish them.” I can attest to that. Over the years, they have received a great deal of my book money, and I’ve finished every single book I’ve purchased from them. I spent many wonderful hours roaming the shelves at the book fairs they held in the schools I attended, carefully choosing which ones I wanted to read, which adventures I wanted to go on.

Mr. Robinson’s passing is like losing a piece of my childhood. For what it’s worth, thank you, Mr. Robinson. Thank you for educating me, entertaining me, and for showing me the wonders that lie on a bookshelf.

RB

June 7

Writing About Reading is Complicated [Books]

I feel like it’s becoming more complicated to write about reading. It used to be that if I wanted to read a story, I’d pick up a paperback or hardback book and dig in. Afterwards, I could tell people I read an amazing book (or sometimes not so amazing). It was cut and dried.

Accusing Mr. Darcy Cover.Recently, I enjoyed my first audiobook. It was a wonderful story by Kelly Miller entitled, Accusing Mr. Darcy, and set in the world of Jane Austin. It was a great experience. I was already a fan of podcasts (even hosting one myself), but I’d never delved into the realm of having a book read to me. It felt like I was a kid again listening to an adult read me a bedtime story. No complaints here.

But when I sat down to write a review of the story I ran into an obstacle. That is, how do I explain how I experienced the story? I mean, it’s not like I read the book. I listened to it. But then, is it still considered a book if it’s audio? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say I listened to a story?

My head was spinning more than usual.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not against audiobooks. In fact, I plan on recording my short story collections in order to give readers (listeners?) another option for enjoying my fiction. Plus, if it gets more people to buy more fiction, I’m going to support it. It’s important for authors to reach the broadest audience possible.

In my head, however, I’m still adapting to the medium. I’m old-school in that I like physical books. I like to hold them in my hand, feel the paper under my fingers, smell the ink, hear that spine crack when I first open it, and see them lined up on my shelves like badges of honor. Story collections.

With audiobooks, and ebooks, there’s no paper, no ink, no way to display them. Yes, I own a Kindle and I use it fairly often (generally for books that are unavailable in print or for public-domain titles I download from Project Gutenberg). It actually took me a while to take the ebook dive. It’s convenient, a bit lighter in weight than a physical book, and I can slip it into a pocket on my backpack with ease. But still…it’s not REAL.

I think the thing I have to get over is the fact that, with audiobooks, I can’t say I’ve read them. And it sounds weird to me to say, “I listened to a great book this weekend.”

Yeah, I know, I sound like one of those old men who complain about how much better things were when they were young. Look, I’m all for progress. Like I mention above, if another format gets people buying more fiction, then I’m going to support it. Audiobooks, ebooks, hell, maybe even animated books that have the characters pop up on the page and act out the story for you.

Just like language, the way stories are told is going to evolve over time. If storytelling can be experimental, then so can the way we enjoy them.

I’ll be listening to more audiobooks in the future and looking forward to the next great advance in storytelling.

RB

May 14

Book Review – Norwegian Wood

This is the third book by Haruki Murakami that I’ve read, the first two being The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. I thoroughly enjoyed those stories, a mix of reality and existential imagery, very similar to the magic-realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez (who is also one of my favorite authors).

Norwegian Wood was Murakami’s first novel, apparently semi-autobiographical. I went into it expecting a story like what I’d read in his other two novels, but instead was pulled into a sort of coming-of-age story about a young man who is caught between to loves.

As I made my way through the novel I kept expecting something to happen, something a little odd or a little wondrous. In the other two novels, strange things happened. A man was caught between worlds, there were mysterious characters, intrigue, adventure. I was impatiently waiting for these elements to appear. Norwegian Wood book cover

But they didn’t. The story sort of meandered mid-way through, the protagonist was confused and depressed, seeking answers. I could relate to that, remembering how it was when I was twenty years old and wondering if I’d ever really fall in love. The characters were all relatable, very distinct and three-dimensional. I understood their motivations, their wants, their confusion.

I feel the characters were what kept me interested in the story. I wanted to see how they changed and grew. Sometimes a certain piece of a story can be enough to make it worthwhile. In this case, characterization did the trick.

This wasn’t a great novel. At least, from my Western viewpoint. I know that Norwegian Wood was a bestseller in Japan when initially released back in the late 1980s. I guess it’s a cultural difference, something that younger Japanese readers can relate to and understand. I get that.

I’m not disappointed that I read this, but I was expecting more. If nothing else, it gave me a glimpse into Japanese relationships, the angst of being a young man seeking himself and trying to understand the women in his life. Those things are cross-cultural, in a way.

If you’re interested in an interesting coming-of-age story, then by all means pick up a copy. If you’re looking for a story with elements similar to Murakami’s other books, then I suggest you pass on it.

RB