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Another Defense of E-Books

I found myself wandering through the book aisle in warehouse store the other day, beating down the all-too familiar urge to pick up every book and stroke it. You see, I have an addiction to books. I am addicted to buying them, holding them, smelling them, feeling the paper in my hands and turning their beautiful pages.

It's the reason people ask me how I can own an e-reader. Where's the romance? Where's the love of the book? they ask. You are murdering books and the publishing industry as we know it.

I've actually been told that. Ouch.

I think if you took one look at my "living room" (which has been transformed into our "library") anyone could tell I love me some tree-books. Although most of them were bought before I had a Nook (and a way to e-read), many have been bought after.

But standing in the store using all my will-power not to pick up yet another to add to my collection, I realized there is a difference between loving books, and loving reading.

I love them both.

I love the books - holding them and flipping through them and seeing the colors of the cover and being able to read the front and the back at practically the same time. The physical book is part of the enjoyment of reading.

But it is not everything.

Most of the enjoyment of reading itself comes from the story - one which can be read between covers, or on an electronic device, which, I admit, is also attractive to me. I love the smoothness of the plastic, the way the buttons click just so, the way the words change magically in front of my face as I "turn" pages. The touch screen I am addicted to.

The fact that I can read on an electronic device actually helps me keep engaged in the book, ironically. When reading with a tree-book, I find myself breaking away every now and then, checking my phone, my computer. I am torn between my two addictions.

But when I read on an e-reader, I feed them both at the same time. Subconsciously, my fingers are soothed by the clicking through the pages, and I don't feel the need to constantly check my emails and social media. I am more free to get lost in the story. And as strange as this sounds, I'm not alone. In the book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distractions, the author Alan Jacobs says the same thing.

And when people like to point out that e-readers are going to be the death of books, I like to point to the iPod. Did that kill music? Indeed not! It's true that there are less physical music stores out there. The album is rare, tapes almost non-existant, and CDs probably dwindling. But music continues to thrive, more now than ever. By making music more portable, more immediately accessible, less expensive, consumers tend to buy and listen to more. More artists have the ability to get their voice out there to be heard.

The digitization of books is similar. E-readers allow e-books, and e-books allow more authors to have their shot at publication, allow more competition, which eventually I believe will lead to better quality. The people I know who use their electronic readers primarily, buy more books. They read more. They read far more than they used to read tree-books. They spend far more money on books than they did before.

Maybe people miss music stores, but I haven't heard many people moaning over it lately. People like being able to listen to entire albums online before buying, buying only the songs they love, downloading it immediately when they hear a song.

I don't know that physical book stores will go away in the same manner, but I think if they do, the transition will be long, and by then we'll be weaned enough that we don't miss them as much. We aren't there now, for sure. My own drooling in the grocery store aisle is testament to that. But I also can see a future where there are more books being published, more access to them, and less expense (to say nothing of less space required to keep them in my house!).

Change is rarely easy. Some of us will go kicking and screaming. And others... like a frog in boiling water we'll someday look around and say, "Wait a minute? When did this happen?" Luckily, we're not frogs, and we'll survive whatever comes just fine.

I have imaginary friends. They have conversations in my head. Then I write it down.

I want everybody to read what I've written, but the thought of anybody actually reading it scares the crap out of me.

I want to see my novel, with my name on the cover, in stores, in people's hands, in their backpacks, on the coffee table beside a pair of glasses. But telling anybody that I am a writer is totally embarrassing. I squirm with discomfort just thinking about it.

I can withdraw into my brain-world for hours. It's really interesting in there. Frightening sometimes.

I write query letters, then I rewrite them, then I cut half of it and rearrange what's left. I worry and fret that it's not good enough. I mash my lips together and press my knuckles into my temples as I read the query that will never get anywhere. I study different websites for advice on how to write a good query. Then I have to rewrite.

I send the query off to my writer's group, we go back and forth with suggestions and improvements, and you know what I do then? I rewrite it.

Anybody know the definition of insanity?

I send those queries off to agents, fully aware that there is little chance I'll get a reply, let alone a request. I put my battered self-esteem on the line again and again.

Every time there's an email my heart speeds up, then crashes with disappointment when it's a rejection.

On the rare occasion that the reply is not a rejection, I fall in love with the person who wants to see the rest of my book. I love him/her. She is the best agent, no, the best human being, in the world. He gets me, man, he understands where this is all coming from and he's the perfect guy to make it happen. She is so smart. He is so friendly.

When it turns out to be a rejection, well, turns out she's not perfect, or smart. She can't be that smart if she didn't end up loving my novel, right? And he's way out there, he is clueless because he just doesn't get it.

But if either of them contacted me I would throw myself into their metaphorical arms.

I just want to be loved.

I want you to hate my book and tell everybody how much you hate it so that it gets banned from high schools and people burn piles of it in the streets, and people cover their iPads and Kindles with one hand while they read it so that nobody else can see. I want you to hate it so much you have to buy another copy to read, just to make sure you really hated it as much as you remember hating it. I want you to write letters to magazines about all the reasons you hated my book.

And I want reporters to come to my little home in the sticks and interview me about the book everybody hates (and some love) to find out what it's all about and why, all to which I'll be coy and speak in riddles so that nobody can figure out really what my infuriating book is supposed to be doing, and as a result they need to read my next book too.

I'll decline every interview and refuse to have an author photo taken.

I'll tell myself it's irrelevant because it's never gonna happen anyways.

I dream of sitting at a table surrounded by my book with a pen in my hand, smiling, signing my novel for those who paid for it and are excited to read it. Then I think the whole scene would make me run away screaming and maybe even gagging.

I cry about things that never actually happened in real life.

I think about funny things said by a person who doesn't exist, and I giggle out loud.

I am both proud of what I've written, and convinced it's total garbage.

I love to write and I friggen hate it.

I suspect I might be kind of brilliant but I am sure that I'm flaky and cheesy.

I don't remember driving to the store because I was too busy figuring out that nasty little plot twist. I can't believe I didn't see that coming. That'll be a surprise. Nobody expected THAT to happen. Mwa ha ha. (Why am I standing in front my truck staring at my keys?)

On a regular basis, sometimes daily, I will resign myself to the fact that I may never achieve my goals. Chances are, my novel will never be on a bookstore shelf or a bookstore website. I resentfully accept that. I die a little inside. Then I find that pebble of resistance in the rubble pile of pessimism. I am a good writer, dammit! I can do this! I cheerlead myself back into it again even though I still know I will likely be disappointed.

I have this bizarre idea that I could possibly make a meagre living at this, despite statistics proving that financially successful authors are the exception and that we hear about them because of their rarity. I admit that I will keep writing while it doesn't pay me a thing. I know it's stupid. I can't help it. I have to keep writing.

If I don't write, I feel unhinged and pent-up and jittery. When I am on a hot streak, I forget to eat. I forget my name.

I want you to tell me how great my writing is.

And when you do, I'll be convinced that you mean well, but you're really just being nice and it's not great work. Or I'll think maybe you were tired when you read it and you couldn't possibly have recognized how weak it is.

Or worse, I might wonder if I didn't read or hear your compliments correctly. My own insecurities about my talent and skill might completely distort everything you say about what I wrote.

I am an extroverted introvert. I'm also an introverted extrovert. I don't want to work in public. I want to hole up in my room with my computer, tapping out words. I don't want to leave the farm, ever, but I know books need promoting, and that means being out there in the world, and it intimidates me.

I want to write. I want to make stuff up. I want to tell beautiful lies. I want to pretend.

I'm emotional, imaginative, reactive, irrational. I insist on continuing an activity that makes me alternately euphoric and despondent.

And you know why all this stuff is going on?

Because I am a fiction writer, I live part of my life in a fictional world of my own creation, I have an observant arm's length relationship with reality, and I am absolutely freaking crazy.

One of the trappings of amateur writing is to create one-dimensional characters, protagonists that are all good and antagonists that are all evil. Let’s face it though: even comic book superheroes have weaknesses; how much more should regular human characters, be they fictional or non-fictional?

Although Mortenson and Relin’s biographical book, Three Cups of Tea, has been criticized for showing Mortenson in a biased and all-too-heroic light, I disagree. There is plenty of flaw in this mountaineer-turned-humanitarian, and that is what made him come alive on the pages, and, if possible, seem even more heroic.

Although listed as co-authors, it’s fairly clear that the majority of this book is written by David Oliver Relin. It presents a third person point of view biography of the man who has come to be known as Dr. Greg. The story begins with a failure and a triumph. On his way to conquer K2, mountain climber Greg Mortenson is called off-course, after already climbing eight times to high camp with the expedition’s food and oxygen stock, to save another climber suffering from pulmonary and cerebral edema. Though it might be easy to paint Mortenson as a superhero who trekked up and down K2 saving lives, it’s this saving of the life that saps his energy and costs him his bid for the summit. Once a helicopter rescues the ill climber at the lower camp where he has been dragged, Mortenson is left to descend the rest of the mountain on his own, where he gets lost and ends up quite sick himself in a small Pakistan village that has never seen a foreigner.

Although this failure brings about the life-changing plans to build schools for the impoverished children of Pakistan, it never seems far from Mortenson’s mind. Failure itself seems to hang over him hard, even through the successes, as he lives in his car and in crack-addled hostiles, faces empty rooms where no one shows to hear him talk, and waits long days for replies to hundreds of pleas for funding that never come.

It is not just his external circumstances that scream failure; Mortenson himself is full of flaws. His work is seemingly disorganized, his basement office “an embarrassing mess.” He appeared depressed, often hiding from the world and his family when he is back in the United States and eventually is given the name of a therapist when he is unable to cope with the depression and anger towards people who want more time than he has to give. He left his family – first a wife, then eventually two children as well – for months at a time, traveling overseas to Pakistan, Afghanistan and India as well as around the country on fund-raising missions. In charge of the Central Asian Institute, Mortenson frustrated his fellow board members with his inability to delegate tasks and allow others in on the planning, leaving them with the knowledge that without him, the charitable work in the middle east through CAI would cease to be. He also became obsessed about the work to the point where “he stopped climbing and exercising. He stopped sleeping. He began to gain so much weight that he didn’t even look like a mountaineer anymore.”

Even in his more heroic acts, he stumbles. When making good on his promise to build the first school, he is ineffective on fundraising. He entrusts his load of cement and lumber to a Pakistani who hides it and uses it for himself and as ransom to get Mortenson to build a school in his town instead. Once he is ready to bring the materials to the town, he is told there is no way to get them there across the river as there is no bridge. Although there will be many instances in which Mortenson comes up against brick walls not of his own doing ­– such as the Taliban kidnapping of him and the destruction of his passport– there are plenty of times in which Mortenson himself seems to not plan enough and not handle the finances well enough.

He is, however, aware of these failings, and they serve to only send him into further withdrawals at home. When Mortenson is quoted, he is self-effacing and humble in his accomplishments, often giving credit to others

The fact is that what Mortenson does accomplish – building more than 81 schools and bringing clean water pipelines as well as other community improvements – in a region of the world that hates Americans and is at war with them, in a culture he does not initially know, with a language he does not speak, with no contacts or friends or political backing – is amazing. It would be amazing if a superhero with only an aversion to cryptonite did it. The fact that Mortenson, a humble, disorganized, self-conscious and shy individual has done it is what makes it so very heroic.

For writers of fiction or non-fiction this is a lesson to be learned: let the weaknesses shine. Not only does this make for a more believable character, but it makes their victories more triumphant.

It's been a concern of mine for years: writing characters that resemble me a little too closely!

Details like eye and hair colour, height, and other specific physical characteristics can distinguish me from my imaginary people, but what if I find my own words coming out of that mouth?

Maybe it's inevitable. These characters have been formed in my mind. Why wouldn't they act or think or look like me?

This is the kind of thing any writer needs a good group for. I asked my 4 Corners about this, because I was really freaked out that my protagonist, Nikki, was turning out like a rearranged version of Heidi. We both have spotted horses. We both teach riding lessons and do a bit of horse training. We've both been known to colour our hair. She has a musician boyfriend; I have a recording engineer husband. Differences? She has tattoos and I don't. Um...she loves to cook?

I honestly can't remember what my writer friends responded with (and I'm too lazy to go look it up) but I left that exchange with a sense of calm. The worry was lifted. My writer friends believe in me and trust that I can invent an entire novel.

I can trust readers to know that writers make things up.

It's fiction. It's all made up. It's all imaginary. For the most part, readers don't know me, and everything is new. The characters haven't solidified for them yet, and aren't based on anyone the reader is familiar with.

Isn't that the most exciting freedom?

My character has a story to tell, a story that might ring true for somebody reading it. I hope this character can have an impact, whether it's love or hate or bewilderment. She's not real, she's not me, but I want her to seem like she could be real. If certain aspects of her life are close to my own, it just means I'm writing what I know and won't make the kind of mistakes that lose readers.

I love my imaginary people and I love my writer friends!

Now back to work.

The Importance of Plot

There’s no doubt that people pick up The Art of Racing in the Rain because of the too-close photo of the dog on the front and the fact that it’s written from a dog’s point of view. Enzo the dog makes a tremendous and unique narrator, and that choice for this book is brilliant. But it was not Enzo that kept me reading this book. As cute and philosophical and creative as that point of view is, what kept me glued to page after page until way too late at night was the plot – the fact that event after event piled on top of each other moved the book in such a way that even the dog lazing in the sun couldn’t slow it down.

The book opens on the eve of Enzo’s death, and though the idea is that Enzo is reflecting on his own life with his owner Denny, the truth is that we really are reflecting on the life of Denny. Within the first year of the narrator, which is glossed over in a span of three pages, Denny meets the girl who will become his wife. Under the guise of seeing how Enzo welcomes another person into his home, we really see how Denny falls so hard in love with this woman named Eve, and how, very quickly, the family expands to include a daughter, Zoe. While the story might be tempted to mold the story around Enzo’s rough adjustment to this new larger family and its happy-ever-after, instead, the dog is merely an observer to how this temporarily happy family begins to unravel.
Stein creates a story in which each chapter creates a new problem, a new layer of complications bearing down on Denny. First, we see how Denny’s career as a racecar driver keeps him from being home when his daughter is born, foreshadowing the conflicts he will face later in choosing between his family and his dreams: “But for Mark Fein to say that Denny should put his own needs above the needs of his family because concurrent success in both fields was impossible was simply wrong.” 
His being away from home also compounds the problem when Eve begins feeling ill. “’You always go away, and I have to take care of Zoe and Enzo all by myself, and I can’t do it! It’s too much! I can barely take care of myself!’”  In order for her to have constant care, her parents have Eve move in with them. This begins a snowball effect of Zoe moving in with the grandparents, loneliness leading to a compromising situation with a teen, Eve’s death, the grandparents’ insistence on getting custody of Zoe, a custody battle that climaxes in the false charges of felony rape, the subsequent bankruptcy of Denny due to escalating lawyer fees and lack of ability to travel for racing and a court case against him. Chapter after chapter, Denny is dealt blows that pull the reader into the story with ferocity. Enzo, though the unique narrator, is merely recording these events as a bystander and comforter.
I don’t want to downplay the importance of Enzo as narrator. The moments of reading where I laughed or cried, it was because of Enzo. My heart broke because his heart broke. My tears came when he became old and frail and unable to stand on his own, because I’ve had dogs and been through those heartbreaking last days.
But I stayed awake, page after turning page, because my attention was invested in Denny and the constant parade of difficulties that came into his life. There was not a page where everything – or even most things – was settled with him. What I learned from The Art of Racing in the Rain is that the art of creating a compelling story is to create plot points that compel a reader to keep reading so that at no chapter do they feel things are well enough to put the book down for a night. Each scene must not just move the story forward but drag the reader further into the mire of the character’s life like a pit of quicksand. 
There is often the criticism that literary novels wallow. This book does not wallow; it races. From one blistering complication to the next, it is a perfect example of how a book cannot rest upon a gimmick as cheap as a dog as a narrator; in the end, plot is everything.

I'd written, rewritten, and revised. I sent it around to be read and critiqued. I made more changes. I added a few scenes, clarified some details, but most importantly, chopped thousands of words.

I thought I was DONE!

I wasn't.

I revised.

People I trust suggested changes, some of which I used, others I couldn't bring myself to make.

After purging a couple hundred more words, I believed I had a lean mean publisher's dream! This time, yes, finally, it will go somewhere! This new query is hot! This manuscript will be literary agent catnip.

I sent it off, honestly thinking it was READY!

It wasn't.

Not quite.

An agent I really like, after reading the whole thing, made a few suggestions I'd already heard. Of course, anybody's opinion is just that- an opinion- but this settled it. Despite my hard work, this book really was not as done and ready as I thought.

This may feel like a defeat or a setback, and it's always a disappointment to get a rejection, but it can actually be a blessing to be rejected by an agent. Writers never stop learning. I've got the knowledge now to make this book even better. The agent who rejected me- very kindly I must add- has done me a favour.

I'll set aside my stubbornness and pride to make some of those changes. If my critique partners and an agent are all saying the same thing, there must be some truth to it.

It won't be easy. After so many years of work I've gotten so emotionally involved in this story and characters. But rewriting a book for years a big advantage: I no longer believe that every word is precious. I can eliminate whole paragraphs and feel pretty darn good about it. I'm capable of tackling it one more time. As many times as it takes.

As long as it takes to be ready.


A German Holiday

December 6th is a holiday in Germany called St. Nikolaus day. St. Nikolaus is portrayed as a grey-haired man with a flowing beard who wears bishop's robe, a golden cape and carries a staff. He visits the children to enquire about their behavior during the past year. On Monday, St. Nikolaus was seen all over Germany riding his horse and surrounded by small figures with painted black faces who passed out cakes and candy to the children.

The story of St. Nikolaus, the bishop of Myra in Minor Asia, who died on December 6th, 343, dates back to the 4th century. He is said to appear in the company of Knecht Ruprecht, "Knecht" meaning "servant". Historically, Ruprecht was a dark and sinister figure wearing a tattered robe with a big sack on his back in which, as a legend says, he would put all naughty children.

As an American, parts of this tradition are interesting, the parallels to our own Santa Claus (St. Nick), but other parts are disturbing in its political incorrectness. But there is also pleasure in participating in traditions different from what I know and seeing how others simply celebrate the holiday as it has always been, and not conforming to today's ideology. Putting aside my own feelings and trying to understand what the meaning of the celebration is, for me, what diversity should be about.

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