Tag Archives: fiction

What Good Is Fiction?

Nonfiction has purpose. It informs, educates, and illuminates. What does fiction do? Nothing but provide escape.

And what’s wrong with that? Nothing, as far as I can see. If there’s any time when people need escape, it’s now. I don’t have to detail the current political, social, and news situations to know that’s true. At times like these, who doesn’t want to escape to a desert island or another planet?

Actually, escapism has never been a bad thing. There are always things in life that need escaping from. At least there have been in my life. Misunderstanding, bullying, depression, loneliness – fiction helped me escape from these, from Green Eggs and Ham to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to A Wrinkle in Time to The Lord of the Rings.

Nor do you need high-brow fiction to provide escapism, though that is there as well. I’ve found escape in Dorothy Gilman’s Mrs. Pollifax books, a cozy mystery/adventure series with included travelogues. In fact, mystery books still provide an escape for me. And science fiction and fantasy, perhaps the ultimate escapist literature, still fill many spots on my to-be-read list, as well as my to-be-reread list. (The fact that I am friends with several sf writers is also a factor.)

I’ve had my innings with classic literature, it’s true, particularly in college, when I was an English major – though one of my favorite courses was children’s literature (aka kiddie lit). If you look at my e-reader, you’ll find Shakespeare and Cervantes along with Grafton, Heinlein, Dumas, and others.

Fiction, like nonfiction, can inform, educate, and illuminate as well – spark thought and inspire to action.

Take Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. In that book, it’s poetry (another “useless” pursuit) that helps the protagonist understand the value of literature and the futility of trying to suppress it. It’s still extremely relevant, considering all the book bannings lately. Or take Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, as appallingly relevant as the day it was first written. Or The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell, which has the first contact with an alien civilization being made by Jesuits. If that’s not thought-provoking, I don’t know what is.

There’s also historical fiction, which, while not always totally accurate (we have nonfiction biographies and autobiographies for that), speculates about the inner workings of famous people’s psyches and posits reasons for how they lived. Melanie Benjamin’s The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb and The Aviator’s Wife, about Anne Morrow Lindbergh, are two examples.

Then there is fiction about fiction and books that provide escape for the mind that cannot be found anywhere else. The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, is one such. John Irving’s The World According to Garp is another famous example. With books like these, one can delve into the mind of the creative person who provides escape for others.

Of course, nonfiction can be escapist as well. Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars provides an entertaining history of the space program, but also NASA’s current exploration of the possibilities of, well, going to Mars. Now that’s escapism – but not fiction. Histories can whisk us away to another time and place with explorers who climbed Mount Everest or charted the Amazon. Ernest Shackleton’s diaries can take me right out of a sweltering day and make me feel the freezing air and hear the buffeting wind of Antarctica.

I will admit that there’s a lot of nonfiction on my e-reader – including true crime, science, biographies, adventure travel, language, and mental health. But it’s fiction I return to again and again. I recently read a beloved novel that I hadn’t read in at least 40 years, and I still remembered not only the plot but also lines of dialogue. And I’ve tried my hand at writing fiction too, which provided mental escape of a different sort.

So, what good is fiction? Even if it’s only escapism, it’s extremely valuable and not to be sneered at. At its best, fiction can make one’s interior world more vibrant, more fascinating, and more meaningful; and the world around us more wondrous, more exciting, and more entertaining. That’s enough of a recommendation for me.

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Ghostwriter Gigs

For the past several years, I have been working for a transcription service, typing up shareholders’ and lenders’ info sessions, conferences, and other sorts of gatherings to discuss primarily business issues.

With the slowing of the COVID pandemic and other factors, however, transcription assignments have been thin on the ground, or at least in the inbox.

Fortunately, I have discovered ghostwriting. Actually, I was applying to be an editor, not a ghostwriter. But I screwed up on the qualifying test. I’m a good editor, but I wasn’t used to their way of editing. When I was an editor in magazine publishing, I worked for a small company. We didn’t have lots of editors, subeditors, associate editors, assistant editors, acquisitions editors, line editors, content editors, proofreaders, or much of a budget for freelance writers. A simple editor had to do virtually all of it. And I was a simple editor.

So when I was faced with a sample text to edit, I did it the way I always had – I attacked all the problems I saw during my first editing pass, then went back to attack the rest of the problems – things I’d missed or that only became apparent on a second or third reading. Problems of flow, continuity, grammar, style, punctuation, and other arcane pieces of an editor’s craft were addressed in a somewhat random fashion.

What the company wanted, however, was a series of separate editorial steps – first (for some reason) spelling and punctuation, then moving upward through a series of other steps done in a certain order until all the editing was complete. I did my usual slash-and-burn editing, which didn’t at all mesh with their procedure. I was turned down.

But I noticed that the company also employed ghostwriters. “I’m a writer,” I said to myself. “I’ve written many an article that I didn’t develop myself on topics that I didn’t select. Why can’t I do that with a book?” This time I passed the trial assignment and became an actual ghostwriter. Then I went through the various processes associated with the position, such as selecting a pen name, creating a profile, choosing which niches I could write in, and so forth.

I expected to have to request orders and wait to be accepted, but almost immediately I received a request from a prospective customer. The book requested was on pets, which I know something about, but specifically on dogs, which I know little about. Some discussion ensued, but I was granted the assignment – 27,000 words, due in three weeks (the usual deadline given for a book of about 30,000 words). That works out to about 1,500 words a day, a number I could easily meet.

Then I got another assignment, a self-help book. The time period overlapped somewhat with the deadline for the pet book, but I took the assignment regardless. After all, 3,000 words a day would be a stretch, but since the overlap was only a week, I thought I could handle it.

While I was finishing up the first book and working on the second book, I sent out more requests for invitations to work on other books, thinking that it might take me a while to line up another assignment. That’s how I acquired my third assignment, which overlapped with the second one, with revisions on the first assignment thrown in. The third assignment was a self-help/business book on a subject I had written something about before in a blog. After some back-and-forth with the customer to make sure we meshed, I signed on for the assignment and the customer signed on for me.

I am finding the job rewarding, though not necessarily financially. The money isn’t great, only a few hundred dollars per book, but more than I ever made at transcription, even when the taps were open and the assignments flowing daily.

I’m writing nonfiction just now, but I think I’ll try taking the test for fiction ghostwriters too, just to give myself more options. I don’t have as much experience with writing fiction as I do with writing nonfiction, but I do have some. And I figure that being able to write both will make my services more marketable and keep the assignments coming in.

Will it be frustrating to see someone else’s name on a book that I actually authored? And not even my pen name at that? Other writers will know what I mean when I say that as long as they spell my name right on the check, I won’t mind. (Not that anyone pays by check anymore. So just so long as they deposit it to the right PayPal account, I’ll be satisfied.)

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Why Write?

I write something every week – this blog and my other one are proof of that. Altogether, I have posted over 800 times in my blogs. But why do I write? What motivates me to keep up this weekly grind? Why do I write?

First of all, it isn’t really a grind. Usually, I enjoy it. Then there’s the fact that I’ve written since I was a kid. I started writing poetry in grade school and continued through my early college years. That was when my poetry started sounding more like nonfiction, so I let my muse lead me in that direction. There I have stayed (mostly) ever since, with only occasional forays into fiction or back into poetry.

I’ve examined my motives and come up with a couple of theories about why I write, or at least why I write what I write. Here’s what I’ve learned so far – along with a few examples of each.

I write to inform.

Most of this kind of writing takes place in my Bipolar Me blog (bipolarme.blog). I have bipolar disorder. Sharing my experiences and perceptions of it are one of the main reasons I write. I hope that my blog readers learn something about bipolar and how it affects them and their friends or family. In fact, I write about bipolar to inform myself about bipolar disorder and about myself. Sometimes I have to do research on topics such as mental illness and homeless or substance use disorders. I’ve done interviews and reviewed books on mental illness topics. Other times I rely on my own feelings, my own accounts of medication and therapy, my own relationships.

I write to amuse.

I used to feel that comedy was dead because people just retold the same jokes they heard on Saturday Night Live. I still feel a little that way when I see people on Facebook passing along the same memes (though I am guilty of it too). But I have so many friends that add their own content – jokes and puns, humorous songs – that I no longer have that fear. I tell my husband the jokes I read online (mostly awful puns) and he tells them to people at work, so at least they are being released into the world IRL, as they say.

The world is funny. I like to write essays about the goofy things my husband or my cats do. They amuse me, so I like to pass on the amusement. This is why I end up sharing some of my writing on the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop Attendees Facebook group.

I write to release my inner demons.

This is why I still write poetry and fiction from time to time. I wrote a novel full of inner demons, but they were never released into the world because the novel was never published. The demons are now circling around, just waiting to be resurrected into another novel.

(The poetry I write is no longer free verse (aka “playing tennis without a net”). I’ve been experimenting with more structured forms such as haiku, sonnets, and villanelles. They haven’t been terribly successful yet. At least I’m trying (sometimes very trying, my husband notes). But I digress.)

I write to vent.

Sometimes I just can’t help it. There are so many things going on in the world that are high-blood-pressure events that I am forced to let off some of those arterial constrictions with rants. Among the topics that get me going are politics (of course), education (which I love, but not how it’s practiced in the US right now), and inequities of all stripes (including mental health treatment). I try to avoid the most contentious of topics, but sometimes just can’t help myself. I sound like a cranky old fart telling kids to get off my lawn or yelling at clouds.

I write to explore.

I love reading books about exploration – climbing Mt. Everest (which I now know is also called Chomolungma, thanks to reading about it), shipwrecks, and Antarctic expeditions, for example. I know I will never experience any of these things personally, but I can’t help but be curious about them anyway.

I also love to explore the world of books themselves – writing them, improving them, reading them, dipping into young adult or children’s books, or following trends in publishing. It’s my passion and I have to share that.

Anyway, here are some of the things I’ve written in the various categories.

To inform

Regarding language: https://butidigress.blog/2016/12/02/lets-talk-policing-womens-voices/

About early childhood : https://butidigress.blog/2018/09/16/early-childhood-education-then-and-now/

About bipolar disorder: https://butidigress.blog/2015/12/13/the-other-bipolar-disorder/

To amuse

Here’s a true holiday story: https://butidigress.blog/2016/11/20/the-great-thanksgiving-ratatouille/

Of cats and men: https://butidigress.blog/2020/08/02/magical-magnetic-noses/

Universal laws: https://butidigress.blog/2020/07/19/gravity-is-not-my-friend/

To release inner demons

Poetry: https://butidigress.blog/2015/12/11/poetry-keeps-knocking/

Poetry about bipolar disorder: https://bipolarme.blog/2015/05/24/haiku-cycle/

To vent

Children and politics: https://butidigress.blog/2016/08/28/hungry-children-a-one-act-play/ (also https://butidigress.blog/2018/06/10/satanic-panic-and-politics-in-america/)

Education: https://butidigress.blog/2018/05/27/why-a-national-curriculum-makes-sense/

Societal change: https://butidigress.blog/2018/02/25/school-shootings-and-the-tipping-point/

To explore

Romance novels: https://butidigress.blog/2017/03/26/romancing-the-body/

Food: https://butidigress.blog/2021/05/23/bacon-eggs-and-salt/

Language: https://butidigress.blog/2015/02/18/language-police-and-the-grammar-nazis-2/

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Writing: Other People’s Lives

cold snow person winter
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It is often recommended that writers write what they know. Unfortunately, this has led to a plethora of novels written by angsty professors about how an angsty professor finds renewed spirit via an affair with a ripe coed.

Writing what one knows is also difficult when one has led a basically boring life. Not everyone is Steve Irwin or Jack Ryan or Jacques Cousteau, after all. I for one have never climbed a mountain, thwarted a spy, or been a spy for that matter. Must I restrict my writing to the everyday adventures of a former English major who has two cats and enjoys crossword puzzles? What a snooze!

There are a few geniuses who’ve managed it. Most notable is Martin Cruz Smith with Gorky Park. Without having been to Russia, this superstar writer made us all believe in his snow-covered, KGB-infused vision.

For him, and for the rest of us, there’s research.

Obviously, a nonfiction writer has to rely on research – interviews with the biography subject, police files on Jack the Ripper, the diaries of Sir Ernest Shackleton. This does not, however, preclude adding a personal touch to the facts. Take Mary Roach’s work, for example. She may never have been an employee of NASA or gone to Mars herself, but her Packing for Mars is a masterpiece of factual research combined with first-person observation and idiosyncratic footnotes. For nonfiction writers, exploring other people’s lives is part and parcel of the genre. Even Rabid, a book about rabies, provides a glimpse into the lives of researchers, doctors, and victims.

For the fiction writer, research is a necessary evil as well. If you write a novel set in Victorian times, you can make it convincing only if you know what people then ate, how they dressed, what political upheavals affected their lives, and even how they used the English language. Even contemporary fiction requires research: What were the laws on the statute of limitations like in Ohio in the 2000s? What are the procedures involving releasing a person from prison? What does a meth lab smell like? These details may not add to your plot, but they can make or break the verisimilitude.

And of course the rule about writing what you know is right out the window with science fiction. You can research what is postulated about faster-than-light travel or colonies on Mars, but at some point you’re going to have to make that leap and write about a creature, a planet, a culture, a history that never existed.

It’s tricky when it comes to writing fiction about people. You can’t fashion every character after yourself (even if there’s a little piece of you in every character). And unless you want to be sued, you can’t write a villain as some specific person from your life, especially if they’re easily recognizable. Better to give that person a hook hand or a lisp, or make him over seven feet tall.

In my fiction writing, I give my characters small pieces of my life. I let my protagonist live in an apartment I once had and can describe in great detail. Another character gets a friend’s kitchen with the odd wallpaper border of ducks.

Then I do mashups for other characters. One gets the hairstyle of one friend, the hobbies of another, and the sexuality of a third. One has the appearance of someone I know and the lifestyle of a different person. Mashups keep me detail-oriented without borrowing too much from any one person. These imaginary amalgams allow me to visualize the characters clearly and not have to keep reminding myself whether the bad guy is tall and skinny or short and dumpy. I know how my model for his body moves, so I know how he moves too.

Until I can figure out a way to write an autobiographical novel about a middle-aged woman who hasn’t hiked the entire Appalachian Trail and hasn’t gone through astronaut training, I’ll keep doing my research and my mashups.

 

Books, Etc. – Books as Mashed Potatoes

Books are like mashed potatoes.(1)

Some books are like mashed potatoes.(2)

Mashed potatoes are warm and creamy, oozing with butter or redolent with garlic, or chunky with fiber-filled shreds of skin, if that’s your thing. They’re yummy and atavistic, a taste that tugs at the link between memory and taste and smell and emotions.

For me, a used bookstore taps into the sensory-emotional link – the scent of dust and aged paper, the warmth of an old heater, the motion of a rocking chair, the calming voice of the owner of a store I went to in my childhood and teens.

Books themselves and the act of reading are less sensory and more intellectual. But just as mashed potatoes are comfort food(3), some books are comfort books.

When I’ve been on a serious reading jag(4), engaging with books that leave me pondering or wrung out, or even sobbing(5), when I’ve overdosed on nonfiction that punches me in the gut or heart(6) I need reading material that’s familiar and soul-satisying without being overwhelming.

I need a comfort book.

I’ve had comfort books since I learned to read – books I’ve returned to again and again, that I never feel I’ve had too much of.(7) My first were Dr. Seuss’s immortal Green Eggs and Ham in my childhood and Bel Kaufman’s Up the Down Staircase, in my early teens.

Later, my go-to comfort books were the Mrs. Pollifax series by Dorothy Gilman – fairly lowbrow adventure/cozy mysteries starring a little old lady working undercover for the CIA. Each book took place in a different country and served up a travelogue more intriguing than the plot and as appealing as the quirky characters and the practicality of the heroine.(8) Also, I know that nothing really bad is going to happen to any of the main characters – none of this “relative dies at the hands of a serial killer” or “best friend is kidnapped and tortured” or “haunting memories of the main character’s dreadful past,” the stuff of much modern crime or spy fiction.

Nowadays my comfort books are largely those by Lois McMaster Bujold. She writes intelligent, witty, engrossing science fiction and fantasy novels, the best-known being the Miles Vorkosigan series. The Vorkosigan books take on sf genres including military sf, space opera, interstellar intrigue, and more, all with solid backgrounds in fields as disparate as biology and engineering.(9)

Of Bujold’s fantasy books, I find most comforting the Chalion trilogy (The Curse of Chalion, Paladin of Souls, and The Hallowed Hunt) or the first of The Sharing Knife series (Beguilement). Falling Free, a mostly stand-alone novel, is also a comfort book, nicely blending the possibilities of technology and humans.

And then there’s Tolkien. Don’t get me started on Tolkien. I’ve read Lord of the Rings dozens of times. My husband, a more visual person than I, has seen the movies dozens of times. As with comfort books, comfort movies no doubt exist. But we won’t get into those. Unless you really, really want to.(10)

Nonfiction comfort books are harder to come by. Familiar but dramatic stories (The Right Stuff), biographies of interesting people (
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

by Robert K. Massie)(11), and accounts or diaries of exploration do it for me. Ernest Shackleton’s diaries are particularly comforting in the summer. The vivid polar prose actually seems to lower my body temperature.

Your comfort books may be entirely different; in fact, they are almost certain to be, given our differing experiences and reading histories. My friend Leslie returns to the Catherynne Valente Fairyland series (The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is the first), an excellent choice, but also joins me in nearly yearly Bujold binges.

The best thing about comfort books is that I can curl up with them in bed, on rainy or snowy days, with a cat, and lose myself. After eating a big bowl of mashed potatoes.

Now, that’s comfort!

(1) No. No, they’re not. Let’s try again.
(2) There. That’s better. Let’s continue until the analogy breaks down.
(3) Mac-n-cheese. Fried rice. Club sandwich. Grilled cheese with tomato soup, the way my mother used to make it.
(4) Trying to remind myself that I was once an English major and an aspiring member of the literati.
(5) Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief and Melanie Benjamin’s The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb were the most recent to make me cry.
(6) Last Man Out: The Story of the Springhill Mine Disaster by Melissa Faye Greene or And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts, for example.
(7) Hence mashed potatoes = comfort.
(8) There are only a few I could probably read now – the first of the series (The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax) and a couple of ones from the middle of the series that featured characters or settings that appealed to me (Bulgaria and Turkey come to mind).
(9) Of the series, the most comforting is A Civil Campaign, described as A Comedy of Biology and Manners. Memory is the best of the novels, but isn’t always comforting, given my experiences with memories and memory lapses.
(10) Hint, hint.
(11) Avoid Prince Albert, unless you suffer from insomnia. The dullest book ever about the dullest person ever was a biography of Prince Albert. Comfort books are soothing, not boring.

Currently Reading:
Fosse, by Sam Wasson
Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, by Lois McMaster Bujold