Some people believe writing fiction isn't 'important'. That it's merely 'escapism' for readers. That it's not a real job. There's a number of things wrong with this assumption.
Stories are how we pass on our history - as individuals, families, tribes and nations. They are what bind us together. Story is what we find scratched or painted on cave walls. Story is what happened as far back as man existed, it's in our DNA. Story happens all the time, even if you're not an author, you tell stories. It is the retelling of our individual or collective past, our traditions, our culture, by framing it in a 'once upon a time' setting, which gives us purpose and hope for the present and the future.
Stories also change us. By being in a 'once upon a time' framework they allow readers to be challenged in ways factual, or even self-help books, can fail. And that's because a story develops empathy in the reader for the characters about whom they've come to care. Research shows that readers of fiction are more empathetic, more open to other cultures, traditions and ways of thinking than non-readers. And empathy, in today's world, is a character trait of which we could use a lot more.
Oh, please, I hear you say, what could an historical romance set in 1867 in British Columbia have to contribute to a 2019 South African reader's life? Let him tell you (Yes, 'him'!).
"I am not someone who typically reads romance novels and very often I shy away from stories set in the 1800s. This story though had an intriguing concept of a Bride Ship. I wanted to read more about it from an interest point of view. I was not prepared for how the story would suck me in and hold me from the first page until I fell out at the last a changed person." - Mark Patterson, reviewing 'Harcourt's Mountain'.
Why are stories important? - 'I fell out a changed person." And that's why I am a storyteller.
I have decided to publish a number of my short stories in an anthology entitled, 'XLP#304'. It's named after one of my favourite characters. To sharpen my skills, I began writing short stories, using as a deadline the length of time it took for the bathwater to run. I have a very slow bath. They became known, unimaginatively as, the Running the Water Stories.
I then discovered the Writers Write 12 Short Stories in 12 Months Challenge. I have been enjoying that for two years now. It's where XLP#304 made his first appearance. Not to mention his second and his third!
So, if you are wondering why there are so few short stories on the website, despite the rather OTT title on the Short Story page header pic, that's why! They're all about to go into a book! It will be my first short story anthology and my first foray into self-publishing - not something I've ever been a fan of but... life is short and exists for us to have adventures and try new things, so why not?
I am trying extremely hard to get the anthology out asap!
When I moved to South Africa from Zimbabwe, a friend said how lucky he thought I was - no one knew me in South Africa, I could re-invent myself, I could become someone I never could back home. This week, I've had a chance to think about that a lot. My novel, 'Harcourt's Mountain' has had a re-invention of its own. The cover is, as they say, exactly the same, but different.
The first cover had a mountain, a lake, a forest, a wolf and some flowers. This cover has a mountain, a lake, a forest, and a wolf - no flowers. Yet the interpretation of those elements, by two different designers, is as different as strawberries are to onions. And it's not just the lack of flowers. The old cover was a bit chocolate boxy, attractive, fruity even, but not real. The new cover is as rugged as the land the book is set in. With nary a strawberry in sight. And while the first cover wasn't wrong in its depiction of elements found in the book, the second cover shows you the book's heart.
We can change ourselves to a certain extent. Especially the outside - a new haircut, go to the gym, a new diet, a new city, country, marital status, job, a new profession even. Occasionally, we're brave enough to make changes internally that we never could when surrounded, as intensely as we are at home, by our past and our families.
It's human nature to dream about being someone else. That's the appeal of stories, no matter what form they come in. Stories touch a deep part of us. They allow us to become someone else for a while. And that's important. Call it escapism if you want, but it's been proved that people who read are more empathetic to others, more able to image what someone's life might be like and do it with far less judgement than non-readers.
Storytelling is important. But here's the question, what story are you telling yourself about yourself? Are you telling the story of the you deep inside, the you, you want to be, the you, you could be? It may just take a slight shift in the story to ignite the re-invention.
Re-inventing ourselves, as with 'Harcourt's Mountain', doesn't necessarily mean becoming someone completely different. I think it means becoming more the selves we were meant to be all along. Making the changes that let the truth and the beauty shine through.
What story are you telling?
Did I ever tell you the bear story? It’s a story that has plagued my life. Shame really as I like bears.
It all began, as so many things that have a profound effect on one’s life does, at high school. We were given an assignment by our science teacher: Pick any animal and write on the sex-life of that creature.
Needless to say, I wrote on bears. I laboured long and hard on the project. When it was finished it filled so many exercise books that when stacked together were an inch thick. The project had in it a number of those wonderful pull-out maps you get in the National Geographic magazine. Photos from the same magazine, from the Reader’s Digest and hand-drawn illustrations and charts adorned the work. I had articles and bear tales from round the globe all beautifully annotated in as well. I had never been prouder of a project in my life. I positively glowed with pride when I handed it in.
I got a ‘D’. A fail. Not an ‘E’ for ‘We acknowledge you expended energy but you have almost no clue’, not an ‘F’ for ‘Complete fail’ but a ‘Nope, you didn’t pass D’.
My father, bless him, outraged that I was given a ‘D’ when clearly, based on the amount of work, the late nights endured and the sheer beauty of the project I deserved an ‘A+++++’, laurel wreaths and parades complete with brass bands and elephants, put on his shining armour, mounted his white charger and rode off to defend my honour.
According to him the conversation with the science teacher went something like this – bear in mind that my dad has a forceful chin and rather piercing eyes, so even slight annoyance looks like the wrath of a minor deity.
Dad: I’d like you to explain why my daughter failed. Please.
Mr Darwin (I kid you not), possibly quailing at the thunderstorm that had erupted in his lab: Mr Dodge, The assignment was “Write on the sex-life of any animal of your choice.”
Mr Darwin: If you can find me one sentence in this entire project that even suggests the sex-life of bears, I’ll give Elaine an ‘A+’. (No proposal of parades and elephants though.)
Dad: Are you saying she didn’t even mention it?
Mr Darwin: Not once. In fact, it’s so lacking in any discussion of the sex-life of bears that anyone reading this project would be forced to conclude that bears miraculously and spontaneously appear out of nowhere.
Ever after, “READ THE QUESTION!” became the mantra I had to endure for every test and every exam I ever took at school, university and college!
Ya think I’d have learnt my lesson, right?
Well, if I had there would be no point to this story. I recently proclaimed with much enthusiasm to the world at large that I was entering the Jameson First Shot Competition this year…I believe I may have said, “If it killed me”. I wrote two scripts. The first one was such rubbish I don’t even remember what it was about. The second one, I thought, had great merit. It was original, witty and clever. I finished it just in time to meet the deadline. Then the mantra began its slow but inexorable chant in my brain. “Read the question, read the question, read the question!” I dutifully went back to the competition website and read the question. This time I wouldn’t get a ‘D’. This time it would be a well-deserved and resounding ‘F’. Possibly followed by trampling of said elephants.
There was, however, light at the end of the tunnel. They had extended the deadline for one day due to technical difficulties! It meant a late night and some hard graft today. I had to come up with a brand new story immediately. It was lunchtime today before inspiration hit. Four hours to write the script that had the potential to change my life!
The echo of the mantra was still drifting lazily somewhere around the ceiling, so before writing my epic I went back and checked the website one more time.
The competition is closed. No more extension. In fact, the statement about the extension has completely disappeared. Vanished. Erased as if devoured by starving Krackens.
I am left disconsolate. Weeping tears of despair. Well, no but you get the drift. Still, there’s always next year. In the meantime I can practise READING THE &^^#%$%#@*QUESTION!!!!
For now, I, like my father and others before him, exit stage left – pursued by a bear!
Pic credit: Amy Sullivan www.amysullivanillustration.com
I was at dinner at a friend's the other day and the discussion touched on the plight of the Syrian refugees and the opportunities they were being offered in other countries in terms of university bursaries. One of the diners mentioned that the refugees were only being taught science related subjects - things, she said quite adamantly, that mattered, that would be of value to Syria when it came time for the refugees to return home and set about rebuilding the nation. They weren't being taught things that had no value, things like art, storytelling and music. I was so stunned that anybody could seriously consider art, storytelling and music to have no value, especially in a country that had been devastated, I just sat there, speechless.
How else does one discover one's roots, one's purpose and one's future if not through storytelling? How does one pass on a people's culture if not through art and what else can express that which is inexpressible, whether it be love, pain, despair, peace, desire and hope, when one has run out of political rhetoric and the heart's emotion is too great to bear, except through music?
Governments and ideologies that demote the arts do so for a very good reason. Not because medicine, agriculture, maths or science is more important but because the arts keep people human. They are the expression of our souls. The danger of the arts is that when people express their souls, when they imagine life beyond the confines of the regime's ideology, they will begin to think for themselves, to imagine and create a life without the regime or the ideology. They will yearn for, strive for and eventually bring into being a better life. A life of freedom. A government or ideology which doesn't allow creative thought and expression is one built on hatred and fear. And the only natural outcome of that is death. Someone once said, "Governments that burn books, will soon be burning people."
There was a moment when I was growing up that I will never forget. We were at my Granny Campbell's house in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. I was in trouble for something, I forget what. I always seemed to be in trouble. I think we were late for a ‘do’ and I wasn’t ready. My mother was haranguing me about it. I was paying very little attention. I had something far more important on my mind. I said, because I very genuinely wanted to know, not because I was being sarcastic, “What’s it like to be inside your skin, Mom?”
It didn’t go down well.
It was the wrong question, at the wrong time. But, I’m serious; I really wanted to know what being inside her skin would be like. Yes, I am well aware that sounds a little creepy – very Silence of the Lambs type stuff – which was not even remotely where I was going with it at the time, or now I hasten to add.
Looking back, I can see that was one of those moments which hinted at my future. After all, what is a writer but someone who can get into the skin, into the mind of their characters and then see with their eyes, speak with their voices, feel with their toes? If we do it well enough, our readers will come crashing up against the characters and we, as writers, disappear completely.
The skin question was just one of the thoughts that rattled around my brain…I was going to say as a child, but it’s never stopped. Now, I rattle them with delight because they’re the questions that make me who and what I am. They are what send me on rabbit trails of delightful investigation to bring both reality and imagination to my work. They are what, hopefully, makes me a good writer.
Nearly all my life, my mind has run on very different paths to others around me. The things that captivate others hold little, if any interest for me. It probably explains why I didn’t have many friends growing up and why my parents didn’t get me at all. My father, poor man, still struggles with the fact that I’ve never had a ‘real’ job. But then he was a banker. Bankers aren’t known for their imagination. The very word is enough to set his false teeth rattling.
That’s why, when I see pictures like this, I feel an inordinate sense of relief. Someone, somewhere gets me. They can see inside my head and it delights them. And that makes me smile because knowing that, means imagination, more specifically my imagination, is a good place to live.
Terry Pratchett has died. He died yesterday. He was only 66. He had Alzheimer's. I don't know which is worse. I do know that I loved his books. I will miss him because of his books. I will miss his amused and tongue-in-cheek playing with cliches. I will miss the hat. And selfishly, as if I wasn't being selfish enough already, I will miss Sam Vines.
I first discovered him, Sir Terry that is, when I read The Carpet People, lying on the carpet in the living room, in our family home in Harare, Zimbabwe. It was the perfect vantage point to read the book. In fact, it should be a law. You are only allowed to read the book lying on your back on the carpet.
I was mesmerized by the story and the characters, and yet it's such a simple book. Years later I read The Night Watch. I fell in love with Sam Vines. He has since become one of my small group of fictional heroes.
Some people have called Sir Terry's writing style eccentric. I call it creative, unusual and inspired. His lack of chapters for example. The first time I encountered their lack I thought the publishers had made a mistake. For someone who suffers from what I call the squirrel syndrome (I'll put the light out at the end of this chapter - oooh look, another chapter!) this lack of chapters is responsible for many all-night reading sessions.
Those of us who have an imagination and aren't afraid to use it will have encountered those without and will have experienced that 'upsetness' first hand. I know I have. Bizarrely, one person was the last you'd expect - my high school English teacher. There's also been the odd banker who thought a particular book should be burned because it had a dragon in it! Well, I did say he was odd. It relieves and encourages me to know that Sir Terry encountered similar non-imaginaries, even though he also sold over 70 million books and was translated into 30 languages! I'm encouraged to know I'm not the only one out there battling the non-imaginaries while trying to make a living using mine.
Thank you Sir Terry for Discworld. Thank you that somewhere the earth is flat, that heroes don't marry Disney princesses, that someone sells rat-ona-stick, that vampires can fall off the wagon and that the Librarian is an orangutan. Every Library should have one.
“Where do you get your inspiration from?”
I generally hate that question. Mostly because it feels like, “Where do you get your shoes from?” Inspiration isn’t like shoes. You can’t go to the shop and get inspiration on sale. Inspiration is the peculiar way your mind works. A non-creative and I could both look at the same thing and be affected in different ways. Take for example this painting by Allen Egan. It’s called 'The Architect’s Journey'. I have no idea where Allen ‘got his inspiration’ for it from. All I can tell you is that this is where I ‘got my inspiration’ for the short story I wrote that has been voted in as one of the finalists in the South African Horrorfest Bloody Parchment Short Story Competition for 2015. http://bookslive.co.za/blog/2015/02/27/winners-of-the-south-african-horrorfest-bloody-parchment-short-story-competition-announced/
Yay, me! The article says, “As always, the top stories contain all that is best in the “horror, dark fantasy and weird genres”. I’m not 100 percent sure which of those categories my story falls under but still, yay, me! It's going to appear along with the other finalists, winners and runner-up in the 2015 Horrorfest Anthology. I've never had anything printed in an anthology before. Yay, me!
But getting back to the place of inspiration.
I saw this painting and while I looked at it the forest grew thicker, the mist heavier, and the light darkened, the child in shorts became a man in long trousers and the architect’s model became something altogether different. But, this is where it started. So thank you Allen. If you’d like to see more of Allen’s work: http://allenegan.blogspot.com/
I can’t give you the story in its entirety, otherwise there would be no point in it being printed in the Horrorfest Anthology, but I can give you a taste:
The Man With a House On His Back
The fog has arrived. Silently, like the breath of the Scythe Man, it has surrounded the cabin and muffled the dogs. The evening meal finished, we sit silently in a half circle, like subjugated felons around the hearth. Even the fire is sullen. The meagre amount of warmth from the pale blue flames is hardly enough to keep the shadows in the corners of the cabin where they belong. My grandfather, Old Jack, sits, clicking his tongue against the roof of his mouth. It’s a night for stories. For dreams of the past. He stirs.
“When I was a child,” he begins…
The forest was thicker. You could walk for days, weeks, without seeing its end. The trees were older and darker. You stayed on the path or you lost your way. And no one would search for you. There were tales of wild beasts, evil spirits and the heads of the dead. It rained. Not like now, but nearly all the time. Even on those strange, dry days the mist hung low in the air, coiled and sliding around the roots of the trees, masking the trails. Hiding the way out. Very few strangers stopped in our village and we seldom went beyond its outskirts. It was a bad way to live. It made us silent, solitary and suspicious. But not, it appears, suspicious enough, because one day a man with a house on his back arrived.
WHOOHOOO! What a great way to start the week! This is what I, and I'm sure all writers, all storytellers live for - people liking your work! Despite the fact that currently everything is shall we say...challenging and I seem to be living the reality of the starving artist, today is a GOOD DAY!!!!!
We have no electricity at home, I have no food in the fridge, I'm still a little behind in my rent and no way of paying next month's, work is a mere illusion and I'm sitting in a cafe waiting for my scooter to get fixed and all I can afford is a ginger, lemon, honey hot water drink and it's going to take ALL DAY to fix the scooter. Thankfully it's still on warranty so I won't have to pay for that! I had to send work via email which is why I'm at the cafe - thanks to the load shedding at home. I've a feeling that the repair shop is using all my petrol testing the bike and I have only R10 to put petrol in - I may be pushing the bike home. The drink has now given me the worst stomach cramps ever!
However! It's a GOOD DAY! And you know why? I've got two more 5 star and one 4 reviews for Harcourt's Mountain! I really hope that this year the book breaks out and starts selling well! People seem to really enjoy it. If you've read it and you enjoyed it can I ask a favour? Could you post your review and the links on your Facebook page and your website?
Here are the links:
and my website is: www.elainedodge.weebly.com
So the three new reviews were from Christy Nichols, Angelica Kate and Sarah Jarrett! Thanks so much ladies! So glad you enjoyed the book!
Christy Nichols (5 stars) said, "I'm not a huge fan of romances, but this one kept my interest from the first chapter. The action, scenery and characters come alive. I'm very glad I got a chance to be part of this adventure!"
Angelica Kate (5 stars) said, "WOW! This book hooked you from the first and you feel compelled to continue reading to the very last. It is a wonderful complex story filled with twists and turns that keep you wanting to reach the next destination. This is a wonderful story for the romance, history or general reader with a little bit of something for everyone. One of the few books I can see myself returning to read again down the road. You will not regret investing the time in this read!"
And Sarah Jarrett (4 stars) said, "An easy read, great characters, lot's of action, a real page turner, yep, I enjoyed it."
Stand back! I have an imagination and I'm not afraid to use it!