Today, We Are All Irish

Editing and Remembering

Working on the novel today. I am remembering my research of the Book of Kells in the Library of Trinity College in Dublin. So long ago, it seems. Not to the Book of Kells, I'm sure. The last of its 340 folios was completed in 384AD.

Today is March 17, and the weather is beautiful where I am. The sun is bright in a blue sky and warming the chill of a late winter morning beside the Pacific. It's a good day and I am grateful for it. That said, I'd rather be in The Temple Bar this morning for a proper Irish Breakfast.

Irish Breakfast

  • Eggs

  • Bacon (chewy, not crispy)

  • Sausages

  • Mushrooms

  • Baked Beans

  • Grilled Tomato

  • Black Pudding

  • Toast  (Irish soda bread for me, thanks)

  • Butter

  • Marmalade

  • Tea  (coffee for this Yank)

Dublin is 11 hours and 5,145 miles away measured in time and miles, but not in the more accurate distance of memory, desire and the senses. The streets, Georgian stone architecture, the greens, buskers and bracing poetic passions of that place are just outside my mind's window today.

The annual St. Patrick's parade will cross over the Liffey River at O'Connell Street and enter another year of one of western society's most enduring traditions.

Patrick and Ireland are indelibly bound in our imaginations, yet he is not Irish. He was born Maewyn Succat in Roman Britain. When he was about 16, Irish pirates kidnapped him and sold him into slavery to a Druid high priest in Ireland.  He worked as a shepherd for six years before escaping back to Britain. Eventually, he had a dream in which a voice gave him the mission of returning to Ireland to work with the Christians there. Patrick was beyond good for the Emerald Isle. He adopted the Irish and by the time of his death, he had established schools, monasteries and churches all over the island. 

Perhaps it's the Irish in me, but I'd like to think that Patrick and today's Irish would recognize one another if he were to return to Ireland for today's celebration in Dublin. He would welcome the embrace of that legendary and companionable literary city.

Now, I'm off in my mind to The Temple Bar for a stout. With a raising of the glass by the Scot in me to the North-Northeast and a corresponding Sláinte to the assembled patrons in the pub, I settle in to appreciate ballads accompanied by Uilleann pipes.

Photo: Leandro Borges de Carvalho

Photo: Leandro Borges de Carvalho

Happy St. Patrick's Day to you.

 

Mark

Separate Fictions, Joint Reality

BEYOND THESE WOODS | Mark Roger Bailey

All our separate fictions add up to joint reality.

- Stanislaw Lec (1962)

BTW Cvr Blue.png

Recently, I discovered an alternate draft of the pitch for my novel, BEYOND THESE WOODS. Considering its position between works-in-progress dating back to 2014, I assume that I put it aside when one of the calls-to-duty that occur in my working life took precedence, and the draft was misplaced for the past four years. Reading it, I experienced a return to my state of mind at that time, which now seems irretrievably distant, a time before the flare-up of human darkness that threatens to overtake us. 

The fictional dysfunction at the root of the conflict in BEYOND THESE WOODS remains with us in fact. My novel is an imagining based on facts rooted in events that have occurred in our lifetimes and remain unresolved mysteries. The passions that drive social, economic, scientific, political and military forces to their breaking points in WOODS have metastasized into a plague on America's foundational principles and the institutions upon which our ancestors built what I have always considered to be a good life. Our shared aspirations and values have become practice targets for the angry and aggrieved among us who are willing to submit to the disruptive expedient, to roll the dice and only hope they haven’t participated in the torching of civilization. Perhaps they are exhausted by the demands of progress and have intentionally submitted to a louder, dominant destroyer. It’s just easier. The duties of effective citizenship are too hard.

Reading this alternative draft through, I am struck by how everything has changed in our day-to-day reality, and nothing has changed at all. We are re-learning that consciousness of a fact is not the same as knowing it. Our history is repeating like a dark tidal current. 

Here is what I wrote earlier:

When men claim that the earth was made for them, beware. Human beings - and birds, fish, mammals, plants - are of and by the earth. When men bully Mother Earth, who stands up to them? The lobbyist, the sheriff, the national guard, the average citizen, the lone wolf scientist? When men savage Earth's ancient forests, who has the courage to say no?

When all of these forces conspire to brutalize again and again, should anyone be surprised when Mother Nature pushes back?

Many of the trees on the western slopes of California's oldest mountain ranges were growing peacefully before the first nation ancestors crossed the Aleutian Island chain, and more than 1,000 years before the first Europeans discovered North America. Giant Sequoia trees were masters of this corner of our planet. No other living thing could match them for size and strength. They have endured every wave of natural disaster and human exploration, settlement and exploitation. But today, something in California's Thunder Peak old-growth forest is killing everyone who comes to harm them, who thinks the Sequoia are theirs for the taking. Loggers and hunters are dying, struck dead in their tracks when they get too close. No one has a clue about what is causing these deaths among the trees' tormentors, except Lotte Keene, who knows more about nature -- including human nature -- than is healthy for her and anyone who works with her.

What this irrepressible scientist-adventurer doesn't know is that past is prelude in this environmental crisis. A mysterious environmental activist and a ruthless shadow force within America's government are dedicated to preventing her from ever learning the truth about their goals. Worse, they are unaware of their separate, yet intersecting plans. And Lotte Keene will stop at nothing to identify the cause of this pathogen. No one is safe from her fierce, unblinking and stubborn search. 

With Keene on their case, no clues are safe from discovery. No enemy is safe from the ultimate antiseptic; exposure to the people of Thunder Peak Wilderness, America and the world.

This is high-tech close-quarters warfare with causes and shadowy actors that are chillingly familiar to each of us. This is high-tech combat in which the enemy within is more terrifying than any enemy beyond our borders. 

This is the story of natural justice and one woman’s tenacity to solve the mystery of sudden death in the Sierras, to rescue earth’s oldest forest matriarchs, and save humankind from itself.

This is human weakness run rampant. In the wrong hands it will rewrite the laws of evolution and permanently alter life as we know it . . . beyond these woods.

I questioned whether to share unpublished writing from another time. What decided it for me was the window this experience opened into a higher truth: humans are a fascinating breed capable of exquisite achievement and beauty, yet we are simultaneously inclined to darker deeds. There are times when we as a species can't seem to control our horrifying impulses. We allow the worst among us to rise, dominate and destroy. Just as the people of Longwood, California experience the nightmare of creeping extremism in BEYOND THESE WOODS and have to confront how far they are willing to let chaos take over their lives and everything they have worked generations to achieve, we now find ourselves at a similar moment of truth in 2018 America, the UK, Italy, Germany, France, Turkey, Russia, Venezuela, Egypt and elsewhere.  

One is fiction that gives us an opportunity to live history without paying a price for the experience. The other is fact. 

Conflict - The Author's Secret Ingredient

Literature's Critical Element

Photo: Ducks Dueling by Mark Roger Bailey

Photo: Ducks Dueling by Mark Roger Bailey

Conflict, especially in literary writing, helps us decide whether to read on or not. Readers know this about their favorite books. Sometimes, writers may lose sight of it as they venture into the thickets of their stories and become temporarily distracted by character histories, setting details, and fascinating yet ultimately distracting arcana. 

The ancient Greeks understood conflict and created the foundation for all drama and comedy upon this essential 'x' factor. Aesop put it in fables. Shakespeare, Woolf, and Hemingway put it in every paragraph. Tabloid newspapers put it in lurid headlines. Aaron Sorkin puts it in every line of dialogue. 

Chief of Staff Leo McGarry and President Josiah 'Jeb' Bartlet confront each other over the killing of officials in the Middle East.  (Season 6 Episode 1)

Types of Human Conflict

Writing without conflict is bread without texture or flavor. Effective prose includes conflict: yin/yang, body/soul, Tracy/Hepburn, rock 'n roll, good/evil, want/need, sweet/sour, life/death, love/indifference, freedom/enslavement, east/west, hot/cold, liberal/conservative, sharp/blunt, light/dark . . . you get the idea.

There are lists of human conflict categories to aid writers, artists, actors, directors, producers, psychologists, researchers and others.  The basics are Man vs. Man (universal including Woman), Man vs. Nature; Man vs. Self. Here is my expanded list:

  • Man vs. Man     The Da Vinci Code | Dan Brown
  • Man vs. Society     The Catcher in the Rye | J.D. Salinger;  Charlotte's Web | E.B. White
  • Man vs. Self     Hamlet | William Shakespeare
  • Man vs. Nature     The Old Man and The Sea | Ernest Hemingway
  • Man vs. Technology     Frankenstein | Mary Shelley
  • Man vs. Alien     Alien | Dan O'Bannon (screenplay)
  • Man vs. God     It's A Wonderful Life (Film) | Based on "The Greatest Gift" by Philip Van Doren Stern

There are other kinds of non-human conflict, of course, such as gravity vs. inertia, star vs. black hole, dog vs. cat, wolf vs. lamb, dry hi pressure weather system vs. wet low pressure system, and heat vs. cold. For our purposes in this discussion as writers and readers, I’ll stay focused on human conflicts.

Besides promising an exciting discovery in return for your time, suggesting that there is a choice to be made creates tension. Will our hero achieve his seemingly impossible goal?  Will society overcome violence to secure peace? Will our father find his kidnapped daughter? Will our heroine outsmart her stronger enemy? Will truth prevail? Will the injured find justice?

Examples of conflict in literary works

THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN | Mark Twain

Individual vs. Society -- Huck’s evolving conscience and experience place him in direct conflict with the law and accepted cultural codes (slavery) as he seeks to free Jim.  

THE ENGLISH PATIENT | Michael Ondaatje

Person vs. Society – Almásy, the title character, defies the state and its military apparatus to pursue his love affair with Katharine Clifton.  Kip, the Sikh sapper, embedded with British soldiers, besides being in mortal conflict with the German bombs he must defuse, is in conflict with the Brits, who ostracize him because of his Indian otherness.  Hana, the young nurse, is caught between childhood and adulthood, denial and coping, as she navigates the terrible romantic extremes of World War II.

BEYOND THESE WOODS | Mark Roger Bailey

Man vs. Nature – what appears at first to be a convincing case of Nature responding to humankind's abuse of forests evolves as epidemiologist Lotte Keene sets out to discover the cause of mysterious deaths occurring in the High Sierra Sequoia groves of 1,000-year-old trees.  

Society vs. Nature – As Keene unravels the puzzle, she discovers that government has adapted biology for a dark purpose and lost control to even darker operators. Eventually, the government fights to defeat the killer with overwhelming force.

Woman vs. Society – Ultimately Keene embarks on her own one-person crusade against government and corporate overreach.

These conflicts are powerful, larger than life examples in literature.  What about the average everyday conflicts that so many people experience in real life? 

No one wants conflict in his or her life, of course. We all recognize it is present, however, and that its disruption of our peace of mind is inevitable. We know that our relationship with conflict influences how we navigate the hundreds if not thousands of small and large decisions we make throughout the average day.

  • Should we wait for the light and turn left past oncoming traffic because it is the more direct route, or should we turn right, go with traffic and circle the block? 
  • Should we have that difficult conversation with a friend whose behavior is becoming toxic?
  • Should we tell our neighbor that their television is too loud? 
  • Should we let a loudmouth ruin our movie-going experience that we paid too much to see?
  • Do we speak up when a bully harasses an innocent person or do we keep moving?
  • Do we speak up when we witness a theft?
  • Do we keep to our writing schedule or make exceptions to watch certain television shows (as research, of course!)?
  • Do we confront governmental overreach into our private lives to defend democracy, or do we avoid a fight and adapt as well as we can to avoid endangering our family's safety and well-being?

Any of these has enough conflict to fuel a novel.

What is it about conflict that makes it such a potent ingredient in our writing?

Literature succeeds when it explores the conflict that threatens the protagonist's ability to achieve his or her goal. Why is it that when we see someone achieve a goal, we lose interest? Whereas when we see someone persist toward their goal against all odds arrayed against them, we are fascinated? 

One reason is because we are compelled by conflict as an extreme of human behavior. It brings out the best in heroes and the worst in villains. We all have aspects of both extremes in our personality. Reading a story about how another person responded when pushed to their extreme helps us gauge how we might measure up in similar circumstances.

The Anatomy of Empathy

Another important reason is that we are hard-wired for empathy*.  We are compelled by how others deal with conflict.  This compulsion is due in part to the functional anatomy of empathy in our nervous system. Certain underlying neural responses are mirrored in us whether we engage in conflict or observe it in others. We experience the same intensity of agitation, discomfort and momentousness whether we fight or observe another engage in combat. This compelling intellectual, physical, emotional, moral identification is one of the compelling appeals of literature. As a reader, we experience the emotional and physiological effects of a high-stakes conflict situation without injury or loss of blood.  And we identify with characters as they must decide: will they or won't they? Will Abraham sacrifice his son? Will Emma Bovary swallow the arsenic? Will Jason Bourne eliminate his tormentor, or is there enough of a connection to his former humanity within him to give his enemy the benefit of the doubt that he, too, is human and at the mercy of his handlers? 

Primal, decision-making processes in our brain cannot discern the difference between engaging conflict in reality and vicariously experiencing it as we read. Matters of discernment, distinguishing reality from the imagined, or recognizing the difference between dreaming and doing are assessed by a combination of other neural processes. These processes of assessing danger, risk and reward; moral drift; ethical dissonance and its ramifications, truth vs. falsity, good vs. bad are complex functions of consciousness. This insight gives the author an opportunity to help the reader suspend his/her disbelief and invest themselves in the protagonist's story, conflict, choices, risks, and rewards. 

In a very real sense, we authors hold the reader’s vicarious life and death in our hands. Should we do everything we can to craft the most extreme scenario we can imagine to thrill the reader? Or should we exercise intellectual and artistic integrity to engage and support our reader’s literary experience of values and ideas in conflict?  

I’m conflicted.

 

* (ref. Preston S., de Waal F. (2002). "Empathy: Its ultimate and proximate bases". Behavioral and Brain Sciences 25 (1): 1–72.)

 

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Intuition

Trust your intution . . . it doesn't lie. A sense of otherness can guide us across the frontier of human story possibilities.

Read More

THE CAT'S TABLE | Michael Ondaatje

Occasionally, writing penetrates the walls we build around ourselves, opens the windows to let sunlight in, and reminds us of who we are, what events shaped us, and hints how we got to this particular place. Michael Ondaatje’s writing does this for me.

Some events take a lifetime to reveal their damage and influence.

This truth, a defining presence in Ondaatje’s writings, is a powerful current in the flow of this novel. The Cat’s Table is understated and life-affirming, with a cast of characters that capture a lifetime of experiences during several weeks at sea.

VIDEO: John Berger and Michael Ondaatje

Two important writers discuss story telling and the creative process in a conversation recorded courtesy of the Lannan Foundation.

I have read, been inspired by, and re-read several of these writers’ books. John Berger’s To The Wedding and Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion and English Patient are particular favorites of mine. This conversation was recorded at John Berger’s farm in Quincy, Mieussy, France, October 2002.  Enjoy…




Resonance: Dreams give us lift . . .

Sometimes, a passage in a book stops us in our tracks. It might be that its meaning intersects with a personal moment of significance, or it states a truth so powerfully that we pause to appreciate the moment of connection. Here is one that caught my eye today.

 

Dreams give us lift …  The trick is to bear up after the weight of life comes back.

Ivan Doig
HEART EARTH (p. 133)

Authors Are Bound To Publish

Literary Entrepreneurs

Self-publishing is leveling what has been a uneven field of competition for authors, for readers, and for book sellers.  Writers still write books on spec, but now they can manage rights, take responsibility for when and how their work is published, participate more fully as equal partners in their work’s publication, connect more directly with readers, and be better literary citizens.

Book Publishing is Becoming Self-publishing

The Internet has made every individual a potential publisher. And technology is making every idea, story, and work of art marketable. Even the business side of the transaction is returning to a one-to-one exchange.

JA Konrath has six books in print and thirteen e-books available from Amazon. He has projected that he will earn up to $100,000 this year on sales of his e-books alone. Each sale is initiated by an interested reader who decides to download one of his novels to their Kindle, iPad, PC, Mac, iPhone, iTouch, Droid, or any other of an expanding universe of personal e-reading options. Amazon’s online Kindle Store (or Apple’s iBook and others) completes the transaction within seconds. No shipping. No waiting. From JA Konrath directly to Ima Reader wherever she is on the planet.

After iPad

There are thirty-nine e-readers on the market. Considering the quantum leap forward in quality of the user experience, it is tempting to rephrase that device snapshot to something more like: the Apple iPad and thirty-eight others.

The iPad provides an excellent, even transformational e-reading experience. It feels good cradled in your hands, on your lap or propped up against your thighs for those middle of the night reads. It has a high resolution color screen that is easy on eyes, especially aging eyes. It responds instantly, enthusiastically to any impulse. Turning the page is almost as satisfying as leafing pages in that 600-page Dickens anthology you’ve had since Lit 101. And you can look up words in the dictionary without getting up to go find it. Plug in some ear buds and you can even listen to the voice of your choice read your book to you.

The iPad will dash the ambitions of many early e-readers and the field will inevitably narrow to a select few devices. Sony and other quality device manufacturers will accept iPad’s challenge and up their game. All for the better. Whatever makes the author’s work available in a high integrity transaction, on an enjoyable-to-use device, and to more people is good.

Opportunity is Calling

When in your lifetime did obstacles to getting your work published actually diminish in number? If you have a good book, some appealing cover art, a compelling description and the ambition to grow your audience, now would be a good time to get out there and share your work.

Related:

The Rise of Self Publishing (NYT  26 April 2010)

Which e-readers will the iPad crush? (CNET, 1 April 2010)

 

Avoid Mind Reading

Except your own

Writing to the market always falls short of the mark. Besides being a soul-numbing experience (because you end up essentially writing someone else’s inspiration), it cannot be researched sufficiently, drafted, rewritten, edited, rewritten again, shopped, edited, and published in time to capitalize on the market trend.  So, you have invested valuable time, energy, and effort in a project to which you are less than 100% committed, and about which you are less than passionate.

Start with what you want to read. Do what you think is right. Draft your concept.  Outline it, write a few chapters and share it with someone whose skill, perspective, judgment, interests, and discernment you respect.  Odds are that those pages will jump to life in the reader’s mind because you care, because you’re invested in something you want to say, in a tale you want to tell.

Trying to forecast the market, or read editors’ or agents’ minds wastes your time.  It also paralyzes your writer’s instrument.  The skills that you develop as a writer are important, high performance, precision tools.  Don’t use your scalpel as a screwdriver.  Don’t use your best sagacious voice to make someone else’s hero sound interesting. Respect yourself, your ideas, and your time.  Follow your muse, your heart, and craft the stories you think matter, the ideas, subjects, and characters that wake you at 3:00 am.

 

Thriller Writers Burn It Down

A visit to the mystery/suspense and thriller aisles at Borders this afternoon inspired six observations:

  1. Deceased authors are publishing new novels (i.e., Robert Ludlum, Margaret Truman)
  2. The Cold War is over, the War on Terror has evolved into traditional war, and espionage and conspiracy are bigger than ever
  3. Protagonists in thrillers are best when they are deeply, irredeemably flawed
  4. Women are gaining market share in the pantheon of mystery, suspense and thriller authors (i.e., Lisa Unger, Lisa Scottoline, Kathryn Fox)
  5. The Mystery/Suspense market is growing
  6. Successful writers in these genres ‘burn down the house’ and create palpable peril

In these categories, my reading has yet to venture far beyond Silva, Ludlum, Anthony Hyde, Clancy, Forsythe, and Cruz Smith, so forgive me if my categorization of those other above-mentioned writers contains errors.  In this, I suspect I am like many of my fellow shoppers in the aisles, scanning titles, cover art, jacket copy and blurbs – drawn to personal favorites, interested in broadening my horizons, yet conflicted about the burden on my budget and the quality of my reading, reticent about dropping $7-$12 on an unproven author.  LeCarré is a personal favorite.  He set the standard long ago in the spy novel genre and continues to craft writing that seems transparent, the writer’s holy grail.

Larry went officially missing from the world on the second Monday of October, at ten minutes past eleven, when he failed to deliver his opening lecture of the new academic year. 

- OUR GAME (1995)

There is an entire novel in that single opening line.

In mystery, Martin Cruz Smith raises my expectations, not only for quality writing, but also for my own work.

Blair lit an oil lamp hanging on the wall. Its wan illumination reached to the glory of the room, an oil painting of Christ in a carpenter’s shop.  Jesus appeared delicate and unaccustomed to hard work, and in Blair’s opinion His expression was overly abstracted for a man handling a saw.

- ROSE (1996)

But I digress.  If there is a single thread that unites the work of all of the above, it has to be the last observation.  These writers burn the character’s house down, usually early in the book, and often more than once.