Monday, December 31, 2012

No Such Thing as a Good Book

I just finished reading Henry James' "Turn of the Screw."

Re-reading, actually, because I first encountered the story during my college years.

And I'm now reading "The Three Musketeers," by Alexandre Dumas.

These two stories--and people's reactions to them--have reminded me of an important truth: There's no such thing as a good book.

Pick any book you loved. I mean loved. And go to Amazon or Goodreads and check the reviews. You'll be shocked to find messages there from people living on a different planet. People who hated this very same book you loved...or at least felt indifferent to its charms.

How can this be? Why can't they see what you see?

Because books are (like any art work) nothing more than Projective Tests. More recently known as Free-Response Measures, Projective tests in psychology are ambiguous stimuli that tell us far more about the person than they do about the object.

Is there something wrong with people who don't appreciate science fiction or fantasy? Or Romance? Or Westerns?


But certain types of people will respond to those stimuli differently.

We get tied in knots discussing the relative "merits" of certain kinds of fiction...or of certain specific works...and miss the point entirely.

We debate and discuss and sometimes argue over stories, as if the story itself held an intrinsic quality of "goodness" or "badness."

When in fact, encountering a story is like encountering another person.  You will "click" with some people, and not with others. And if you're paying attention, this degree of "fit" tells you most of all about yourself.  

What are some of the things about you that determine whether or not you'll appreciate a particular story?

1) Age.  Ever read a book twice, at different ages?  Chances are, it means something different to you.  "Turn of the Screw" created a different (more intense) reaction in me at age 48 than it did when I was twenty-something.

2) Intellect. I've written on this before, and it's a can-of-worms topic. But (Reader's Digest version): Intellect is essentially the capacity to deal with complexity.  Complex words, complex sentences, complex plots can either be a playground of the imagination...or a frustrating block. 

3) Aspects of Personality.  This could be a book-length discourse; but for now, I'll mention just one element: People tend to lean (at least a little) towards either of two poles... 




And these "bents" determine some of our preferences in stories.

Analytics (Thinkers, introspectors, imaginatives) tend to have a greater appreciation for the fantastical...for sci fi and fantasy and bizarre worlds and "out there" possibilities.  They are explorers of the mind...and they enjoy speculating on "what could be." They like to chew over their stories, and break them down and savor the richness of inner worlds.

Socials (Relationship-focused, extroverts) are less likely to be attracted to what they perceive as "weird" stuff. They want to vicariously feel the surge and pull of emotions that come with the territory of human relationships.

Neither of these tendencies are two discrete sides of a coin. Most personalities are a blend of these two, and fall somewhere along a continuum. But individuals do tend to favor one side above the other in the overall coloration of their personalities.

When you tell me about a book you loved (or hated)...I'm learning more about you than I am about the book.

Friday, November 23, 2012

We Dit It!

Saturday, November 17th we celebrated the release of Primary Source at the Marrowbone Public Library.

Written World Communications editor Rowena Kuo and her wonderful family traveled down from Chicago to be with us, as we greeted 52 people, enjoyed the refreshments, and laughed together.

Ro's youngest daughter, Evie took time to peruse the work of competing authors:

Meanwhile, I signed copies of mine:

During the festivities, Lesa told me the story of going to the store to pick up the decorated cake she ordered. The bakery handed it to her, she glanced at it, and took it to the checkout line. While waiting to pay, she decided to check it more thoroughly, and lifted the box lid. The cake read:

Congratulations, Alan. You Dit It!

Back to the bakery for a quick fix...Even with baked goods, there's always editing to do!

It was a great celebration with family & friends...and a time to acknowledge that I didn't do it alone. Rowena and the team at Written World Communications, my family, and supporters all made it possible:

We Dit It!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

25 / 12

Our daughter was born on September 1st, 1992.   Two weeks late. And while those last two weeks of waiting seemed longer than the whole preceding nine months, there was one silver lining:

She was born on my birthday.

It was the nicest birthday gift I ever received, and a wonderful convergence of two celebrations.

Twenty years later, the month of September turns out to be another convergence worth celebrating.

September 5th marked our 25th wedding anniversary. And, after 12 years of hard work, late September will see the release of my novel Primary Source.

The marriage has been easy...twenty five years with my best friend, and while we've walked through all the usual ups and downs of life, I can't imagine a better partner.

The dream of publishing a novel...not so easy.  Lots of ups and downs there, too... But unlike the marriage, there have been plenty of times when the temptation to quit was almost overwhelming.

November is still a ways off, but this has been a month of grateful Thanksgiving.

Maybe by our 50th anniversary, I'll have two books published! If not, as long as I have her, I'll be content...

Monday, September 3, 2012

An Opera in Three Acts

With Primary Source moving along towards publication (the team is working on layouts & typesetting, now), I thought it would be fun to dissect a few elements of the book...and maybe answer a few questions before anyone has a chance to ask.

To start with:  Why are the three major parts of Primary Source named after operas?

The main character, Malorie DeMarco, is a fourth-generation Italian American. Growing up, she absorbed the love of opera from her Grandfather...and it's still a part of her life, much to the bewilderment of her roommate, Paige.

While opera themes don't play a major role in the story, I thought naming the three major sections after famous librettos might be a good way to reinforce the impact that opera had on Malorie's well as providing hints of foreshadowing.

Part One: A Masked Ball (Verdi)

In the first section, Malorie struggles to make sense of confused identities...she's never quite sure who's who, but she knows she's in danger.

In Verdi's opera, a masked ball covers the identity of a political assassin. 

Part Two: The Italian Girl in Algiers (Rossini)

In the second part of the novel, Malorie takes a journey away from her hometown of St. Louis, in search of answers.

In Rossini's opera, a spunky, clever Italian girl travels away from home on a search for her love.

Part Three: The Force of Destiny (Verdi, again)

As you would expect, Part Three brings everything together in the climax, and Malorie is forced into decisions that affect her destiny.

Verdi's opera has been described as "a sprawling concoction of disguises, fortune tellers, and vows of revenge."  That seemed as good a description of the third section of the novel as any...

Saturday, August 4, 2012

"Sure, I'm Sure."

My son and I have a running joke, based on an old Bloom County cartoon.  

In it, the brainy, budding scientist Oliver hacks into the computer system of the Soviet newspaper "Pravda," and creates a false headline. When his friend Milo asks if Oliver got the translation from English to Russian correct, Oliver sounds confident...albeit with slight reservations.

"Sure I'm sure. I'm pretty sure."

Of course, his confidence was misplaced, leading to humorous results and confused Russians.

So anytime I ask my son, "Are you sure?" he automatically responds with the tag line.

Confidence is a strange paradox.

It allows us to take action; to move forward and dare things. A football team that believes in itself plays up to (and maybe beyond) it's capabilities.

As I write, the 2012 London Olympics are underway, and you often hear commentators discussing the confidence (or lack thereof) that athletes display.

Without confidence, we're uncertain about our direction. Tentative. We may even quit in discouragement. Or not even try.

Confidence is good.

Except when it's not.

For all its positive qualities, confidence has its dark side.

Most of us, like Oliver, tend to be more confident than the facts warrant. Studies done in a number of fields (athletic performance, chess skills, intelligence, supervisory prowess, decision-making capability, etc) suggest that human beings tend to consistently overrate their own skills/abilities.

This overconfidence factor seems particularly strong at amateur levels of activity.  For example, studies of serious chess players show that both beginning and advanced players rate themselves as having higher levels of skill than is actually the case. However, the gap between self-judged ability and actual ability is wider for the beginning players.

More advanced players are a little more realistic about their true level of acumen, though they still display what psychologists term a "self-serving bias."  (learn more)

This helps explains why the vast majority of drivers feel they are better drivers than other people.  We can't all be better than the next guy...Yet we believe we are.

It's one thing if you feel you're a better tennis player than you actually are...the only thing liable to get hurt is your pride.

But what about people in positions of power who are confident that an oil rig is safe?  Or confident that the housing bubble will never burst? Or confident that a little ice on the wings of that airplane won't be a problem?

Compounding the issue of overconfidence is the fact that people tend to be attracted to, and impressed by, confidence in others.

On the whole, we praise, applaud, and look up to confident people. And we are more likely to be persuaded by them.

Even when they are dead wrong.

This creates a politics, in business, in academic debate (can you say: "global warming"?) where it is more important to appear confident than to be factually correct.

The term "con man" comes from the word "confidence".... getting people to believe something that isn't true (for money, or status) used to be called "a confidence game."  So con men and impostors can pull of audacious feats by acting with boldness and certainty.

You see, when people act like they know what they're doing...we tend to believe them.  Whether or not it's actually true.

Therein lie the seeds of a lot of woe...

Would you rather be treated by a doctor who seems unsure of herself...tentative and always checking her facts in a book?  Or by a doctor who swiftly and incisively assures you of what's wrong and how to fix it?

Studies show we intuitively place more trust in doctors who appear certain of their own diagnoses, and who speak confidently.  Even though the doctor who double-checks her facts and second-guesses herself may be safer for our health.

It's not an easy paradox to resolve....but it's wise to consider both sides:

Confidence based on proven ability is healthy and productive.

Confidence based on smoke & mirrors can have terrible consequences. 

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Another Milestone

This past week marks another huge milestone in the writing journey...

My editor and I completed the final changes to Primary Source, and she's sending it out for typesetting.

Mostly, it feels weird... To suddenly have no more edits. To realize that all that work is done. I feel sort of displaced.

But it's a good feeling. Like Frodo, with the help of so many, I finished what I set out to accomplish. And, like Frodo, I've changed along the journey. Grown a bit wiser, I hope.

I hope it connects with a few readers, of course. Like Nichole Nordeman sings, "I don't mind if you've got something nice to say about me...."   But there's a lot more to it, than that.

If my words challenge or inspire one person, the way I've been challenged and inspired over the years by well-written fiction, then every ounce of effort that went into Primary Source will have been worth it.

Looking forward to whatever comes next...

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Confessions of a Commenter

Can I just say it?

I enjoy commenting on other people's blogs more than I enjoy posting on my own.

I'm pretty sure that's a politically incorrect statement, like admitting that you're not really into Thomas Kinkade paintings, but it's honest, nevertheless.

Here are a few reasons why it's true:

1) I like my commenting "voice." When I respond to an ongoing discussion on someone's blog, my words usually sound like me. Like I was sitting in a room with one or two people, having a thoughtful interchange.  When I write a blog post, it usually sounds like someone I don't know. Occasionally I have achieved a post that sounds natural, but this hasn't happened often during the time frame I've experimented with blogging.

2) Good posts deserve comments.  People with far more blogging talent than I are out there spending the time and effort to put their thoughts into eloquent words. When I read a well-written post, I feel compelled to give that person an "attaboy" or "attagirl" and show appreciation for their work. No one wants to post their best thoughts, and hear "crickets" in I enjoy making some bloggers day by responding.

3) I hate the forced nature of good blog writing.  I get the fact that it's important to blog regularly if you want to attract and retain an audience. I just can't do it (no surprise, if you check the archives). I'm more of a "When I have something to say, I'll say it" person. Which leads me to...

4) I love commenting because there's no set schedule. I have a handful of blogs that I visit fairly regularly (usually 3 or 4 times a week). If there's a lively discussion going on about a topic I care something about, I'll toss in my two cents.  But if the current topics don't catch my interest, or if someone else has already said what I would have said, then I stay silent.

5) I'm very critical of my own blog ideas.  One of my pet peeves is the repetitive nature of blog topics. It's a rare blogger that has the gift for writing engaging and fresh content. A large percentage of what clogs up the blog-waves is rehashed and rewarmed. And I tend to draft a post, look at it critically, and go: meh.   So I don't post it.

God bless the talented bloggers! Look for me in the comment section...

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Why God is a Hard Friend

Lately, I've been immersed in the relationship research of John Gottman. 

If you've ever read Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink," you'll recognize Gottman as the researcher who can very accurately predict whether a married couple will divorce in the future, based on analyzing the dynamics of a brief, recorded interaction between the two.

Great stuff; and Gottman's books are highly recommended. But this focus on what makes human relationships strong, and what makes them weak, has also got me thinking about a common phrase:

A relationship with God (or, a relationship with Jesus)

It's easy to be a Pharisee... Just memorize a bunch or rules, or scripture passages, and quote them at people (or yourself).  But when I talk to people who have honestly tried to build a relationship with the Divine (or read honest memoirs of those who have), I hear words and phrases like this:

Drift. Lost the fire. Left your first love. Backslidden. Doubts.

Gottman's research has helped me understand (at least one reason) why.

In human relationships (friends, partners, co-workers, etc) people make "bids" all the time. Little gestures of reaching-out to the Other. In essence, these are "requests" for connection.  In healthy relationships, Gottman found that these bids are met by "turning towards" over 80 percent of the time. For example, if I'm reading in bed, and my wife sighs deeply while she's over working on the computer, that's a bid. I have three basic choices: I can turn towards ("Something wrong, honey?"); I can turn away (by saying nothing); or I can turn against ("Why is it always a dramatic sigh with you? Grow up.")

Unhappy couples have a much higher incidence of turning away, or turning against, and over time this feeds the lost of trust ("I make a bid for connection, and you're not there for me.") Which leads to the breakdown of relationship.

See the connection?

A relationship with God means that we trust, deeply, that God is "there for us."  Not that we mouth platitudes and say that this is true, but that He has proven it (and continues to prove it).

So what happens when God lets us down? When we come up against that "betrayal barrier" (Dr. James Dobson) or we feel "Disappointment with God" (Philip Yancey)...?

Gottman found that if couples can "attune" these inevitable "attachment injuries" over and come to some resolution, then the hurts are forgotten and forgiven, and the relationship continues strong. But if the couple nurses unresolved angers and disappointments, over time trust erodes, and faith in the relationship dissolves.

I'm thinking here of the person who's been kicked around by life...maybe in their 20's, but more likely in their 40's and 50's... and gradually over time have come to believe, through experience, that "God's not there for me the way I used to feel."

Unresolved disappointments. Unanswered prayers. Questions without satisfying answers.

I think Gottman's work shows us part of the process by which a relationship with God can weaken over time.


Monday, January 2, 2012

Writing is an Unhealthy Endeavor

I was thinking during my morning exercise about the importance of balance...and how the process of writing can pull you out of that.

Then, when I got to the computer, I read this.

Which just reinforced my thinking: Writers are sedentary creatures. Or can be, if we're not careful.  I know I've gone through stages during the 10+ years I've been seriously writing where too much sitting, not enough time, and too many cappuccinos led to unwanted baggage around the middle.

Three strategies I use to avoid the Writer's Hunchback:

1) I often write in a reclined position.  Since I like to write (and edit) with a paper & pen instead of at the computer, I'm free to adopt whatever posture I choose. Many times, I choose to write in a reclined position, so my back isn't curved forward over a keyboard. If you can sit at a keyboard and maintain healthy posture, you deserve an A+!  But many people find that difficult.

2) I get outside every chance I get.  I love hiking, and just being outdoors. So when I'm not writing, I get up and moving...outside if possible. While I'm at it, I may eat a few bacteria for good measure.

3) I love my kettlebell!  If you're not familiar, a kettlebell is like a cannon ball with a handle, and it's a fantastic workout tool. With just this one piece of equipment, (plus other basic body-weight exercises) I can get a complete workout that tones and strengthens the entire body. The kettlebell provides cardio, strength, flexibility and balance training. And it does this with very little space required, no need to go to an expensive or inconvenient gym, and with minimal time requirements.

In 20 minutes, I can start my day with exercise just as vigorous (or gentle) as I want it to be.

Check it out:

Kettlebell demo 

And one for the ladies:

Kettlebell demo (female) 

Exercise is healthy for your body & your brain....and necessary to balance all that "Seat-of-the-Pants" time. What are your favorite ways of breaking out of the Sedentary Writer rut?