A SURPRISING SOURCE OF INSPIRATION YOU MAY NOT HAVE THOUGHT OF

When I define myself, I don't call myself a writer. I call myself a storyteller (in point of fact I like the term raconteur.) The distinction, to me, is an important one. As a writer, my entire world is the written word, fiction or non-fiction, novel-length or short subject. As a storyteller, I embrace all forms of fiction, not just written. I read, yes, but I also watch TV unabashed, enthusiastically rush to the movie theater, and even admire some television commercials. And it doesn't stop there: I love live theater (yes even musical theater, I know and can sing many show tunes from memory,) I get a major kick out of old-timey radio shows, I can even sit for hours watching the extemporaneous play of children. Many of my dreams are cinematic in nature, quite dramatic, with beginning, middle, and end. Some music, notably country music, is an entire master class on tight and concise plotting in a single two-to-three minute song (Tie a Yellow Ribbon, The Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald, The Coward of The Country, Ode to Billy Joe, etc. ad infinitum.)

As a raconteur I have learned so much from embracing all of these forms of storytelling. But recently I have been exposed to a unique form of storytelling that has absolutely astounded me with it's surprising depth, complexity, and ability to draw one in and thoroughly entertain. Please bear with me, here, I think you might find these insights worthwhile.

XBOX CONTROLLER

When is the last time you played a video game? I'm not talking about Pacman or Super Mario Brothers. Recently I bought myself a top of the line gaming console and a few of the most popular games: Disney Infinity, Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto V. To be honest I was a little intimidated by modern gaming consoles, assuming as I suspect many adults assume, that they require hours and hours of valuable time to master, and besides are really rather silly and juvenile. I had so many better things to do.

Well, I was not prepared for the experience. First, let me get the misunderstandings about modern gaming out of the way. These games are not difficult to master, for the most part. The controllers are designed in such a way as to make interaction with the games easier, not harder. While you will have to exercise concentration and develop some hand-eye coordination that may have gone rusty, the games give you unlimited tries to get it right, and you will find yourself adapting and mastering the controls much quicker than you think. Second, most games are episodic in nature, broken up into vignettes (in some games referred to as missions), between which you can save your progress and walk away. So you are not obliged to play for hours on end. You might feel compelled to, but with a little self-discipline you can limit yourself to only an hour a day, or a couple of hours a weekend. It need not become the giant time-suck you fear.

You may suspect that modern games have better graphics than the last time you tangled with Donkey Kong and you'd be right. But baby, you have no idea! The detail and realism of the worlds these games open up to you is something beyond anything you could ever imagine. One of the most impressive is Grand Theft Auto V (GTA for short.) This game takes place on a vast island fashioned after Los Angeles, and I cannot express to you the detail of the world they've built, and the realism. It really is every bit as if Los Santos is a real place that you've stepped into. Call of Duty the same. There are still cartoonish games such as Disney Infinity but even these are well rendered and engaging.>/p>

But on to the most compelling part. The storytelling. For many of these games, you follow a plot through the game. These stories are every bit as well written, well-acted as a Hollywood production. Call of Duty centers around a veteran soldier sidelined by the amputation of his arm, who finds new employment with the private security firm owned by the father of his best friend, who was killed in battle. He is given a bionic arm and a chance to fight to defend the defenseless again, but soon he and his new friends begin to suspect a more nefarious motive behind the missions they are being assigned. While these games necessarily involve action, combat, explosions and the like, they are character-driven stories, compelling and engaging, with wonderful build-ups, conflict, and climactic conclusions.

In Grand Theft Auto V you alternate between the POV of three characters: a retired gangster in witness protection contending with boredom and a family who no longer has any respect for him, a street hustler looking to take a step up in the underworld and take part in bigger and more lucrative heists, and a psychopathic killer with anger-management issues. Together these three find themselves athwart some very powerful criminal and law enforcement types and must navigate a dangerous world, to somehow come out alive on the other side. This one is heavy on shooting and crime but the stories are still very well developed, character driven, and enthralling.

Now of course, as an action/thriller writer, I chose games heavy on action, and those are primarily the games one hears about the most. But there are other sorts of games for those who like more mystery and intrigue than shoot-em-up. For example, <em>Never Alone</em> features a little Inuit  (Eskimo) girl and her little arctic fox friend who must embark on a perilous quest across many dangerous obstacles to save her tribe from extinction. Along the way she encounters spirits, some of which she can enlist to help her, and others who wish to oppose her. The dialog is entirely in authentic Inuit - a soft, almost hypnotic language - with subtitles. This is a visually beautiful game, some of it looking more like an ethereal painting than a video game.

Look, I'm no gamer. But as a storyteller, these and other games I have played have caught my imagination every bit as much as reading Harry Potter or attending a performance of The Mikado, with the added dynamic of being interactive. No, I would not put them in the same category as Dickens or Hemingway, but in their own way they deal with very similar human dramas in an engrossing and thoroughly entertaining way. I would encourage those of you who embrace storytelling in all its forms to make these games a part of your research and inspiration. I think you will be blown away by just how satisfying they can be.

Devil Baby – Louisa May Alcott’s and George Lucas’s Love Child

I’m sorry! I’m sorry I can’t stop talking about Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. I’m sorry that so many people either love it or hate it or both and shake their fists at the firmament and there is the wailing and the gnashing of the teeth.

I loved episode VII. I was transported to that long time ago and that galaxy far, far away. And yes, it’s not a perfect movie (wow, those star systems are really close together to be able to see the super-duper doomsday weapon in the sky with the naked eye). However, none of the Star Wars movies are perfect. Perfect is not the game here, people. If it was, perfect would so stupidly easy to do.

Remember that scene in Dead Poet’s Society, where the textbook claims you can map the perfect poem on a graph? Well, let me tell you, when it comes to art, throw your graph away and yeah, tear that textbook apart.

From Luke’s whining in episode IV, to C3PO’s constant (and annoying) chatter in episode V, there are a myriad of issues. However, Star Wars works at a gut level. Except for maybe episode II, but I won’t go there. The prequels are…different. They’re not like other boys.

How does this tie into Louisa May Alcott? Or is this just click-bait? Hmm, click-bait. Yum.

What is the devil baby (take it to mean unexpected and diabolically good) in the title of this blog post?

Duende.

Duende (sounds like a gynecological term) is actually a Spanish word for that special power some art is blessed with. If nothing else, the new Star Wars has duende as did episode IV. You can argue about all the others, but why else would people go see it numerous times? My wife, who is not a Star Wars fan, wants to see the new movie over and over. Because it has a passion, a sparkle, something undefinable (and ungraphable).

Can you plan duende? Can you map out the perfect story arc and the perfect character arc? You can try, but I don’t think you can. I think duende happens, sometimes by mistake by a newbie, and sometimes on purpose by a weary rofessional who got lucky.

I’m forty-five years old and I’m reading Little Women for the first time. I’m reading it to my daughters before bed, and we are loving it. However, I see all the flaws. It’s unabashedly preachy and the dialogue/dialogue tags are awkward and repetitive.

For example, here is what LMA loves to do:

“Long bit of dialogue goes here and it goes on and on and it really doesn’t do much except make you fall in love with the characters,” she said, followed by a long description of activity which doesn’t do much except make you fall in love with the story, not that there’s much of a story.

Louisa May Alcott wouldn’t do well in my critique group. We’d demolish her pages because her prose is so easy to pick apart. Like Star Wars is easy to pick apart. When I started Little Women, the book read like one of the stories my daughter wrote in the first grade. It’s four sisters talking and not much is happening and it’s sweet, yes, but um, not the most thrilling first chapter I’ve ever read.

However, Little Women has duende. I am astonished it was originally published in 1868 because it’s so accessible and I can relate so much to the family and the characters. I feel like I’m a part of the world of the March family, maybe like some crazy uncle.

How can that be? How can this old book have so much power? How can it break rule after rule and still work? I don’t know. All I can say is that I feel blessed to be reading Little Women, and I’m glad it survived the whims of time and the cruelty of the publishing industry.

So, as an author, what am I to do? I can try and craft my novels and aim for perfection, but at the heart of the matter, I don’t believe I can imbue my work with duende. I think it either all comes together or it doesn’t.

The only thing I can do is sit down and do the work. Maybe the book will shine, and maybe it won’t.

In the end, I think it’s a matter of courage and vision. Do I have the courage to pursue my unique vision of a story?

I think that’s where duende comes from—when the passion and love of the author shines at the heart of a story. George Lucas wrote a story he clearly loved. I think Louisa May Alcott did as well.

So, write the stories you love! And if you are lucky or blessed (or damned, arguably) that passion will shine and bedazzle billions!

Be a good critique partner – Part 1 of 2

I credit the marvelous process of critique with helping me get published, and continue to be published. And just as my fabulous CPs help me, I help them. There’s a compelling reason to give our best efforts with every critique: the better critiquers we are, the better writers we become.

Book Too WonderfulToBeTrue Jan 2016
Photo courtesy of pixabay.com

Many of us have suffered from or heard about nightmare critiques with back-handed comments and thinly veiled insults, and we want to make sure our critiques are both encouraging and helpful. One way to ensure this is to avoid excessive compliments and vague comments.

Here are some critique comments I’ve read over the years in critique groups, along with comments about how to make them more useful to your CPs.

Loved it!!  This will trigger a sense of relief from the submitting writer, but not much more.  Was it the opening that was strong, or the dialogue?  Or just the hunky hero? Include detail so the writer knows what, specifically, worked.

Couldn’t stop turning the pages!  One hopes that means the tension remained high throughout, with enough drama that the reader was anxious to know what happened next – instead of the possibility that you were just in a hurry to finish the critique and get on with your own writing.

This is perfect as is. I wouldn’t change a thing.  We all want to receive a critique like this! When backed up by specifics, this is a gem of a critique I’d copy, put in 60 point Times Roman, bold, and print out for the front of my computer.  Without accompanying comments, though, I’d still wonder if some parts might need work and the critiquer was just being generous.  But then, we writers have been known to be neurotic.

I don’t like your protagonist. This is crushing for a writer to receive. Though it may be true, it’s brutal.  Being writers, we can find gentler ways to say this.  One bit of wisdom I’ve learned over years of critique is: “Don’t send a critique if you’re short for time.”  Whenever I have, I realize I’m more likely to be abrupt, and when abrupt, a sense of uncaring and overly critical-sounding comments erupt that I later regret when I re-read it at a time I’m *not* so rushed.  As a critiquer, you’re walking in a field of priceless human emotions.  Even multi-published authors hardened by years of rejections and reviews can be hurt by abrupt comments.  Always take your time.  Better to be a little late with the critique than to cause unintended harm.

Characters aren’t convincing. Don’t shirk from giving or receiving this comment. This is a gem of an observation, so useful -- if accompanied by specifics. Is the character the ruthless head of an international corporation yet continually shown in scenes as indecisive or unaware of his industry’s jargon?  Or perhaps the character is a prostitute but acts naive in this particular excerpt.

I hope you love your critique partners as much as I love mine, and I wish you many positive comments in your future critiques. My next blog will offer more insights on your CPs’ comments.

7 Reasons to Teach at a Writers Conference

RMFWConference_Chalkboard_7reasonsWorkshop proposal submissions for the Colorado Gold Conference opened January 1st and we’ve already received quite a few excellent proposals.

You may be asking yourself if you're qualified to teach at a writers conference or if it’s worth your time and effort to develop a course. We’re here to tell you that everyone has something to offer. Below are just a few of the reasons why you should submit a proposal for this year’s conference.

It Inspires Others
Writers need endless inspiration. We probably want to quit more often than people in any other career including those who clean port-a-potties for a living. Experienced writers who publicly share their failures and successes captivate and inspire conference attendees. Be a part of an event that sends writers home with a renewed sense of creativity and drive to complete their works in progress.

Saturday Panel 8It’s Challenging
Taking time to develop a workshop is challenging and well worth the effort. Many of us writers are introverts and teaching is an opportunity to interact in a public setting. Students will test your knowledge, and you may even learn something from them. In the end, you’ll leave the conference closer to perfecting your own skills.

It Renews Your Ingenuity
Taking time away from fiction writing to develop a course for writers redirects your creativity. Your efforts will leave a lasting impression on students, and you’ll return to your own work with a refreshed frame of mind.

Saturday Workshop 2It Shares Your Knowledge
Think about how much you’ve learned at the writers conferences you’ve attended. It’s time to give back and share your knowledge with fellow writers. Mold the minds of future fiction authors and set them on the right path. Help fellow writers perfect their skills and bring their stories closer to publication.

It’s Self-Rewarding
With all the rejection writers face on a regular basis, we need to frequently rejuvenate our spirits. One way to do this is through the rewards that come along with teaching and inspiring others. You will gain a sense of accomplishment by coaching fellow writers on their journey to publication. Students will inspire you, and you’ll leave the conference with a positive outlook about your own work as well.

It’s a Responsibility
If you’ve been writing for years, whether you are published or not, you are a leader and shouldn’t be afraid to see yourself as such. New writers look up to your knowledge and experience. They want to know how you succeeded. Share your skills and wisdom with confidence.

Mario Acevedo and someone else leading a workshopIt Earns Compensation
One of the best reasons to teach at the Colorado Gold Conference is to save a little cash. Presenters receive compensation that’s good toward discounts off the base conference registration fee. Panelists receive a $50 discount on the conference registration fee per discussion panel they sit on. Co-presenters of workshops receive half off the normal registration fee per workshop. Solo workshop presenters may attend the conference at no base charge.

Note that the maximum compensation for any presenter is one base conference registration fee. Paid add ons are not included in the base conference registration fee and are not part of the compensation. RMFW does not provide travel or other expenses. More information about compensation is found in the conference proposal form and Conference Proposal Worksheet.

Teaching or speaking at a conference can benefit you as well as the writing community. One of the best things about attending a writers conference is the opportunity to gather and grow with your tribe. Being able to share your knowledge and guide others down a path that’s familiar to you is a great way to be a part of that. You get to connect with other writers, give back, and get your name out there as an expert. If you have knowledge to share, consider teaching a workshop at RMFW’s Colorado Gold. We look forward to seeing your proposals!

Check out the Conference page or go directly to the conference proposal form for additional details.

Is Writing Getting in the Way of My Life?

So I have a spiritual adviser. I know that can be off-putting, but If it helps, you can picture me talking to Yoda. I mean, after all, Yoda was a spiritual guide for Luke and various other people who never listened to the green-skinned guru. Oh, well, we are a headstrong bunch.

My little green spiritual adviser asked if writing was getting in the way of my spiritual development. He’s unimpressed by me, which is good, because I am so damn impressive.

Is writing getting in the way of my spirituality?

Well, it makes me miserable, and since I’m a third Catholic, it counts as being beneficial. As my friend Jason Evans says, “All suffering is redemptive.”

To be clear, I’m not someone trying to get into heaven. I’m a guy whose natural inclination is to find a nice corner of hell and set up shop. I choose my suffering, and my spirituality is about me trying to suffer less.

Does writing help me suffer less?

Ouch. No. But let me continue…

You might have heard of a small film that came out in December of 2015. It’s called Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I know, weird title, right? I think it might have something to do with Yoda, but I’m not sure.

I can’t tell you how much fuller my life is because of this one movie, which I’ve not seen at the writing of this blog post. It it fills me with a dreamy kind of hope, an excitement, a wonder.

I had to accept, early on, that writing stories is a selfless act and the world is better for the stories people tell. Even when the stories are sequels spun out of a story machine who’s only aim is to make as much money as possible. Even those stories matter.

When I write and publish books, I am adding stories to the world and I don’t know what will happen. And I can’t just write books and keep them hidden. I spent twenty years doing that, and those days are over. Lucky you, my practice books won’t see the light of day. But the practice is over, and it’s show time.

Writing doesn’t help me to suffer less. That’s not the point. The writing makes me strive harder, work more, and to really push myself to the very limits of my endurance, which makes me seek a power greater than myself.

The world is better for the stories we tell. And if I have stories to tell, I have a sacred duty to tell them.

I’ve had to pray and meditate more than ever because of the writing game.

I’ve had to reach out for help because of the writing game.

I’ve had to swim through frigid oceans of screeching fear because of the writing game.

Writing has made me a better human being, but that doesn’t mean it’s made me happy. Happiness is such an American ideal. Part of me is old school, yo, as in, I’m here to do my duty. Happiness may or may not come, but honor, courage, discipline, those are what I should focus on.

So I told my Yoda all that, and he was unimpressed, as he should be, because he knows I’m clinging to the writing business.

The real danger is that I have spent a lifetime, thirty years, in pursuit of this dream. Could I let go it now? If the divine muffin came down and told me to put the pen down, could I?

Our Buddhist friends would say attachment leads to suffering. And I’m not just attached to writing, I’ve superglued it to my soul. My query letters have been etched on my bones.

So, no, I can’t let go of it. It’s too late for me to stop, even if I wanted to. Even if I could.

But this is my calling, my vocation. I’m committed, for better or worse, even when it makes me suffer and I hate it so. Even when the dreams of fame and fortune flutter away and I’m left with an Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,426,891 Paid in Kindle Store and even worse, an Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #5,552,680 in Books. And no, I don’t want to see the Top 100 in books, thank you very much.

So, I’ll keep writing books. I’ll continue to suffer, since I like it for some odd reason, and I’ll continue to fight fear.

Because I am Jedi, like my father before me. And the work of writing stories matters more than my own happiness.

May The Force be with you. Always.

GET YOUR HEAD RIGHT

I struggle most with writing when my head isn't in the right place. What is the right place? For each person it's different. For me, it's when I feel good physically and when I feel good about myself, emotionally. Physically, it's just hard to write when you're not feeling well, when you're coughing or blowing your nose every five minutes, or making frequent trips to the bathroom...nuff said.

Stair MazeBut emotionally is where I'm most fragile. It's very easy for me to get down on myself. A very negative and mentally abusive father, though long dead now, still "lives rent free in my head," as they say. He's in there moving furniture around, leaving fingerprints on the glasses, changing all the presets on the remote. He knows where all my buttons are hidden, where all the worst things I can think about myself are stashed.

In truth, as is always the case, it's really not him, it's me. When alive he convinced me I'm not good enough, and even if I were, I don't deserve any success, because I am only bound to f--k it up eventually anyway. In what I'm told is a common psychological twist I still don't quite understand, after I moved out, instead of leaving all that behind, I've taken up his mantel and now do all those things to myself. That guy in my head is just an avatar of him - it's really me.

I've gotten to the point where I've managed to lock him in a basement room and, for the most part, ignore him. There are even times when I've had the pleasure of going down there and gloating over some success or triumph. Those are the good days. But it also doesn't take much for him to pick the lock and get out, running around up there wreaking havoc yet again.

A careless or off-hand hurtful word from a loved one or even a stranger; a moment of carelessness on my part, hurting someone else and making me ashamed of myself; even putting effort into a project and failing. All of these are the skeleton keys, not only to letting him out of his cell, but giving him access to all the past things I've tried to forget, dragging them out and parading them in front of me, making me feel even lower.

How do I write on days when outside events have shaken my confidence? I have to be honest with you, I haven't found a sure way yet. For me, the only thing that works is just to force myself to write. Sure, the first few paragraphs I put on the page at a moment like this are, in the vernacular of my ancestors, pure shite! But if I can stick with it, sooner or later it smooths out and suddenly I'm in my other world, the world of my making, where I control all outcomes, where the good guys eventually win and the bad guys get paid back for all their evil. I can always go back later, after I'm feeling good again, and fix the bad parts.

Meanwhile, this doesn't just make me feel better while I'm writing. When I come up for air it's with a fresher perspective on all my problems, a realization that no problem is so great it can't me handled, somehow, and compared to some, my life hardly sucks. My writing isn't just a job for me, or even a hobby.

My writing is essential therapy!

How Writers are Like Turkeys: A Thanks for Nothing Post

Toon Thanksgiving Turkey. Isolated on a white background.

What? Are you seriously comparing me to a turkey?

Why, yes. Yes I am. But don’t take it personally. I’m comparing all writers to the Thanksgiving bird (or Thursday bird as people outside the US call it).

You suck.

Valid point. But I wasn’t commenting on your smell as in you stink like a turkey (which honestly isn’t that bad). I was referring to a turkey’s ability to see at least a 1000 feet in front of it. Now, I don’t literally (used correctly in this case so no emails) mean a writer has the power of supersight, but rather a writer has the ability to ‘see’ where their character will go and eventually end up. Some of us choose not to use this power, rather we pants it to the finish line, but the ability is still there.

What else you got?

Male turkeys are call gobblers as they announce themselves to the females using a similar sound.

I didn’t come to the RMFW blog for this crap. I’m leaving…

No wait! I have a point (not a great one, but still a point). Writers often announce themselves, not with a gobble, but with a million questions about everything or telling everyone around about their book, and/or my personal favorite, straining to eavesdropping on the couple out on their first Tinder date. Not that I’m admitting to anything, but I’ve fallen off my chair trying to listen to a conversations a few tables away.

You are such a weirdo.

Thank you, but I can’t take all the credit. The voices in my head help a lot. Now back to the turkey. According to the Smithsonian, “Studies have shown that snood (that hanging red thing on their throats) length is associated with male turkey health.” You are probably asking yourself, what this has to do with me as a writer?

Duh.

The length of your manuscript is directly related to your health. No, really. I’ve heard from a few writers about physical or mental health and its effects on their ability to write. Menopause is a bitch, apparently. For the men, I’m sure Manopause sucks too.

That was a reach.

Give me a break. Do you know how hard it is to relate writing to turkey droppings?

Speaking of turkey droppings, apparently you can tell the gender of a turkey by what it drops. Males produce spiral-shaped poop and females’ poop is shaped like the letter J. Now I could say something about writers using the letter J, thereby relating the two. But that is a reach, so I’m going to talk about how you cannot tell a writer’s gender by their book. Often people make assumptions based on the narrator as to the gender of the writer. They shouldn’t. We are writers. Good at faking stuff.

Yawn. Are you done yet?

Yes. Except for one final fact, that you as a writer will obviously understand my point:

Benjamin Franklin praised the turkey as being “a much more respectable bird” than the bald eagle.

We ARE turkeys. Each and every one of us. Better than those bald eagles. Now go strut your stuff as turkeys can only fly about 25 feet in the air.

Do you have Turkey Day plans? Does it include eating this respectable bird? Kind of cannibalistic, don’t you think?

Fate and the Crooked Pathway

I recently had a dream about the boss who fired me. I remember being pleased to see him (in real life he’s been dead for nearly ten years) and wanting to thank him for firing me. Because it ended up being the best thing that could have happened to me. If he hadn’t fired me and I hadn’t struggled to find a job and ended up staying home with my toddler children, I might not have started writing. Bored and frustrated, I channeled my angst into poetry and then a novel. Although I only wrote a few chapters of the novel, a family saga, before I realized I was way over my head.

If I hadn’t been fired and finally been forced to take a job working at a bank where I sat all day, the discs in my lower back might not have given out, resulting in back surgery. Because when I signed the paperwork for the surgery and got to the part where it said I could potentially die, I realized I couldn’t die. Not only because I had two small children, but because I hadn’t written a book yet.

If I hadn’t been fired and been forced take the bank job I hated, I might never have considered applying for a position at the local public library. It wasn’t a career job, and it didn’t pay very well. But because of what I’d gone through, I applied for the job and got it. And it was working at the library where I discovered the genre of historical romance and realized this was a kind of book that I could write.

Being fired, which was devastating at the time, set all the steps in motion for me to become a writer, and also for me to get published. Because it was the support and encouragement of my co-workers at the library that made it possible for me to see myself as a writer and to take the necessary steps, like joining RMFW, which gave me the connections to sell that first book.

Since then, my career has been very up and down, with a lot of downs. But on my journey, when things have been very grim, I’ve reminded myself, that a lot of the time, bad things happen for a reason. When doors slam shut in your face, it means you’re supposed to backtrack and go a different direction. And even then you may still find you’re not going the right way. You may have to alter your path several times before you find the right one. The one that will lead you to where you need to go. Although where you need to go might not be the place you expected.

My philosophical outlook may have no meaning beyond being my personal coping mechanism. A way for me to see my checkered career path in a positive light. But even if that’s all it offers, it still has value. By allowing me to remain positive, it’s given me the strength to fight through the tough times and keep writing. And since writing is a big part of my personal happiness, that’s definitely a good thing.

Interview: Mariko Tatsumoto

Mariko TatsumotoThis month I had the great privilege to interview author Mariko Tatsumoto, author of thelovely and wonderfully heartwarming middle-grade novel Ayumi's Violin.

What made you aspire to be a published writer?

I accidentally took a children’s writing class. I thought I was signing up for a creative writing class. Our “final” was to write a picture book. The instructor praised my work and encouraged me to get it published. I later took a creative writing class from the same instructor.

How long have you been a member of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers?

About ten years. I learned so much at the Gold Conferences. I always attended a session every hour, I never skipped. I also bought CDs of sessions I couldn’t attend. I relished in listening to stories speakers told. By attending conferences, I made writing friends whom have become vital in my writing life. I joined online critique groups set up by RMFW. The writers in those groups have taught me so much and have given me so much support, I could never thank them enough.

Who are some of your own favorite writers? What are some of your favorite books?

Michael Connelly, Tony Hillerman, J.K. Rowling. I used to own hundreds of books, many of them first editions or signed, but I decided to pare down only to those I really care about. Now I own about a hundred print books. I only have about a dozen ebooks. Some that I could never give away are: Tom Sawyer, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Snow Falling on Cedar, October Sky, The Wave, and all the James Bond books by Ian Fleming because they were my father’s.

What are you currently reading?

Boys in the Boat by Daniel Brown

Ayumi's ViolinWhy was it important to you to tell Ayumi’s story?

I think the hardships we endure in our lives never leave us, and we want others to understand what we’ve gone through. Immigrating to a foreign country is a difficult transition. Many people don’t understand how tough it is to make a new life in a new country where you don’t speak the language and you don’t understand the culture.

In some ways Ayumi’s father is subjected to the same mistrust and racism as Ayumi, and yet his experience with these things differs from Ayumi’s in fundamental ways.

Especially in 1959, being white allowed many privileges, such as traveling unrestricted and not being judged by his looks by strangers. As the book progresses, he learns to stand up for Ayumi more, but he doesn’t carry racism and resentment from his childhood like Ayumi. Father can get another job and speak up for racism.

While to Ayumi the violin represents her connection to her mother, from her death bed mother said, “I will always be in the music.” Not in the violin itself. Why is this distinction important to what happens later?

To Ayumi, when Mother tells her to take care of her violin, the violin embodies her mother. But Ayumi’s mother knew that music is what is important to Ayumi. The violin is only how Ayumi expresses her music. Even when she can't play her violin, wherever there is music, her mother is there.

While Brenda resents sharing her parents with Ayumi, it isn't the same as the racism of those who hate Ayumi but do not know her.

Brenda is jealous of a new sister in the house, not because Ayumi is biracial. Brenda is pretty much color blind, which children are if they are not taught to be racist. Jealously of other siblings is normal and natural, racism is learned.

Diego’s presence in the story is critical to show how his experiences with intolerance differs from Ayumi’s.

People stereotype depending on the race: Muslims are terrorists, Mexicans are lazy, Blacks are thieves, Asians are smart. Of course in 1959, Asians were not attributed with any positive stereotyping, but I threw that in to show that not all stereotyping is bad, such as Blacks have rhythm, Blacks are great athletes. Because different races are thought of differently, Diego, being Mexican, is thought of as being dishonest, prone to stealing. Thus, he’s fingered whenever there might be a burglary. Ayumi, on the other hand, isn’t regarded automatically as a thief.

If there is one message you wish families to take away from the story of Ayumi and her violin, what would it be?

Never let go of your passion, it will carry you through your darkest times.

What are some of your own personal writing habits?

I think about my book, such as plot, dialogue, scenery or whatever away from my computer. I think about those things while I’m hiking, driving, or lying in bed. When I’m at my computer, I’m putting words on the screen. I don’t allow myself writer’s block. I don’t have that kind of time to spare. If the next scene isn’t coming or I can’t figure out how C gets to D, I work on something else. Maybe I work on a scene or a dialogue that’s way beyond where I’m currently working on. Maybe I rewrite a previous scene. I keep going, not always chronologically, but that doesn’t matter.

The ages old question for writers: to outline or not to outline?

A flexible outline. If I don’t know where the story is going or don’t know what the theme is, I don’t know what scenes to write, what words to put into characters’ mouths. But if a character says something unexpectedly or a scene twists a different way than planned, I go with it. In those times, the story often takes an unusual curve that turns out to change the book for the better.

What can you tell us about any upcoming writing projects you have in the works?

I have two manuscripts that are ready to publish, which I plan to release in the next 6 -7 months: Accidental Samurai Spy and Kenji's Power. I’m currently working on a book with a working title of The Messanger about twelve-year-old Lilly in an internment camp during World War II.

Thank you so much, Mariko, for taking the time to answer my questions. I'm sure all of our members are grateful to you for sharing your insights into writing with us, as well as some details about Ayumi's Violin. Good luck! Or as they say in Japan, work hard and persevere!

Is It Enough To Simply Tell An Entertaining Story? … by Glenn Rogers, Ph.D.

Glenn RogersIs it enough for a writer to simply tell a good story? No. In the process of telling an entertaining story, a good writer, even if only implicitly, deals with important ethical, social, relational, or personal concerns. A good writer helps readers think about important things while they are being entertained.

There is a long and proud tradition in the Arts and Literature, going all the way back to ancient Greece, that utilizes stories as a way not only to entertain, but to teach and to provoke consideration of and reflection on important issues and concerns. Being born in 1951, one of the cartoons I grew up with was Rocky and Bullwinkle. One of the regular segments of Rocky and Bullwinkle was Aesop’s Fables, a collection of morality tales designed to teach important concepts. Aesop was a Greek storyteller who probably lived between 620 and 560 BCE. His stories were meant to teach lessons about good character and proper behavior. They were designed to make people think. Why did the creators of Rocky and Bullwinkle use these ancient stories in a cartoon program meant to entertain children? Could it have been that they believed that it was the responsibility of those who have the attention of people, even children (or maybe especially children), to say something meaningful, to provoke thoughtful consideration?

But even before Aesop and the ancient Greeks, tribal peoples utilized stories not only as a way to entertain but to teach. Anthropologists who work with tribal peoples know that this is still the case even today. Through storytelling, tribal peoples taught their children about their origin as a people, their religion, their culture, and wise and moral behavior. Storytelling has always been a way of teaching and provoking insightful reflection.

Good storytelling—in our Western tradition, good writing—has always involved more than just entertainment. A good story has to be entertaining. But it must also provoke insightful reflection. Consider Shakespeare’s work. He writes about moral corruption, social interaction, politics, love, and desire. He provides contrasts between virtue and appetite, sobriety and revelry, being trustworthy and untrustworthy. And in what may have been Shakespeare’s last work, The Tempest, at least one scholar believes him to have provided a theodicy, that is, a justification of God’s benevolence in a world filled with evil and suffering. Shakespeare did not simply write to entertain.

Later in the 1960s, Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek. One of the reasons the TV and movie franchise has remained viable may be due to the fact that Roddenberry’s approach to exciting and entertaining storytelling, an approach that has remained foundational to the franchise’s success, was the use of morality plays. Episode after episode of Star Trek, especially the original TV series, deals with important human issues or concerns.

Those who are considered great writers today have adopted that same approach. Consider a few examples:

Jane Austin, in Pride and Prejudice, deals with the status of women and the institution of marriage in eighteenth century England.

John Steinbeck, in Grapes of Wrath, addressed the economic challenges faced by the rural class during the depression.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, in The Great Gatsby, wrote about conspicuous consumption, the generation of wealth by questionable means, and a deplorable general lack of interest in the social concerns of his day.

Ernest Hemingway, in For Whom The Bell Tolls, wrote about the brutality of war.

Upton Sinclair, in The Jungle, wrote about the dangers and health risks of the food industry of his day.

Harper Lee, in To Kill A Mockingbird, wrote about the coexistence of good and evil and the moral nature of human beings.

George Orwell, in 1984, wrote about the dangers of totalitarianism.

Rogers_THE IMMORTAL AlabasterWhat made those writers great? Was it that they got the grammar right? Probably not—though getting the grammar right is important. Was it that they knew how to construct an intriguing story? That was probably part of it. But each of those authors has a distinct writing style and their books have a different feel. So what made those books great books produced by great writers? While there was likely not one single thing that made their work great, I suspect one of the things was that they wrote not just to entertain, but to provoke thoughtful reflection. The fiction of these well-known writers (all of it, not just the stories mentioned above) helped readers think about important issues. They (and other authors like them) didn’t just write. They wrote about something, about something important.

Could it be that too many writers today have lost sight of this important component of good writing? Is it enough to simply write an entertaining story? No, it is not. The good writer finds a way to touch on some important human issue or concern. The good writer not only entertains, but also provokes thoughtful reflection.

The important human issues or concerns don’t always need to be huge issues such as the status of women, the brutality of war, social equality, or health issues. Things that might be considered lesser concerns by some can still be important. Issues such as personal integrity, self-control, loyalty, friendship, kindness, discretion, moderation, courage, trustworthiness, and the like are important concerns for human life and interaction. Think about what J.K. Rowling did in her wildly popular and influential Harry Potter books. While she entertained us with a wonderful world of magic, she wrote about the struggle between good and evil. She wrote about courage, friendship, loyalty, determination and sacrifice. And while some critics might say that Rowling is not a great writer, maybe it is possible for a good writer to write a great book … or two or seven.

Writing that focuses attention on important aspects of human existence, even if only implicitly, is, I believe, better writing than that which simply entertains without provoking any kind of thoughtful consideration.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Dr. Glenn Rogers is Professor of Philosophy and Social Sciences at Iowa Lakes Community College in Estherville, Iowa. He is the author of twenty-six academic books on cultural studies, theology, and philosophy. Dr. Rogers is also a novelist, writing mysteries and thrillers. His fiction includes a frontier thriller trilogy: The Colemans The Reckoning, The Colemans The Journal, and The Colemans The Knife. He has a mystery series featuring a private investigator named Jake Badger: Family Secrets, Love and Lies, and Abducted; and another mystery series featuring an immortal detective named Aaron Archer: The Immortal Alabaster, The Immortal Betrayal, and The Immortal Carnage.

Glenn is a movie buff and a dog lover. His favorite author is Robert Parker. He especially enjoys Parker’s Spenser series.

Glenn’s fiction can be found on his website: booksbyglennrogers.net