Closing the Wardrobe

Why ever come back from Narnia?

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Cards and Computer Solitaire: Why the physical book will not die.

I was walking late tonight to the local convenience store. In it I saw on a shelf with a lot of the type of cheap knickknacks American convenience stores carry: mint tins, cheap plastic toys, plastic costume jewelry and the like. On it were a few packs of Bicycle brand cards.

It reminded me of a passage by G.K. Chesterton, in What’s Wrong With the World titled “The Universal Stick:”

Cast your eye round the room in which you sit, and select some three or four things that have been with man almost since his beginning; which at least we hear of early in the centuries and often among the tribes. Let me suppose that you see a knife on the table, a stick in the corner, or a fire on the hearth. About each of these you will notice one speciality; that not one of them is special. Each of these ancestral things is a universal thing; made to supply many different needs; and while tottering pedants nose about to find the cause and origin of some old custom, the truth is that it had fifty causes or a hundred origins.

The knife is meant to cut wood, to cut cheese, to cut pencils, to cut throats; for a myriad ingenious or innocent human objects. The stick is meant partly to hold a man up, partly to knock a man down; partly to point with like a finger-post, partly to balance with like a balancing pole, partly to trifle with like a cigarette, partly to kill with like a club of a giant; it is a crutch and a cudgel; an elongated finger and an extra leg. The case is the same, of course, with the fire; about which the strangest modern views have arisen. A queer fancy seems to be current that a fire exists to warm people. It exists to warm people, to light their darkness, to raise their spirits, to toast their muffins, to air their rooms, to cook their chestnuts, to tell stories to their children, to make checkered shadows on their walls, to boil their hurried kettles, and to be the red heart of a man’s house and that hearth for which, as the great heathens said, a man should die.

(The paragraph break I added.) He’s saying that the old things, the basic things, are protean. They have many uses. He goes on:

Now it is the great mark of our modernity that people are always proposing substitutes for these old things; and these substitutes always answer one purpose where the old thing answered ten. The modern man will wave a cigarette instead of a stick; he will cut his pencil with a little screwing pencil-sharpener instead of a knife; and he will even boldly offer to be warmed by hot water pipes instead of a fire. I have my doubts about pencil-sharpeners even for sharpening pencils; and about hot water pipes even for heat. But when we think of all those other requirements that these institutions answered, there opens before us the whole horrible harlequinade of our civilization. We see as in a vision a world where a man tries to cut his throat with a pencil-sharpener; where a man must learn single-stick with a cigarette; where a man must try to toast muffins at electric lamps, and see red and golden castles in the surface of hot water pipes.

The new items fulfill single purposes and fulfill them well. But that is all: all the manifold uses of the protean, universal items are lost.

I thought of this looking at the cards. I can play poker or solitaire on my computer, alone or with friends. But the sheer physicality of a simple deck of playing cards creates so many uses that a computer program can’t hope to ever duplicate. I can palm a card and do tricks with it: guess the one you have chosen, or make it appear in a hat, or in a silk handkerchief. I can set a trail of cards on the ground for you to follow, or build a house of them, hoping they will not topple. A slim pack of cards can be used to play solitaire even when no power exists, or can be brought out to entertain among strangers sharing an airport. Or to while away a high school lunch period. I can toss them to see how far they fly.

But a computer card game can only do the one thing: play solitaire.The lack of physicality specializes it in the same way his example of pencil sharpener specializes one aspect of the knife. Most of the rest are lost.

There’s a huge dimension of the physical aspects of books that the e-book destroys. The e-book transmits information and transmits it efficiently. What it cannot do is exist in the many ways a physical book can.

I can walk to my friends house and see what books he has on his shelves. A random one may catch my eye, and a discussion start. I can borrow that book and tuck it under my arm, reading it as I walk home. I can see the notes he took in it, and see the faint stamp of a used bookstore he bought it from. 

I can playfully smack him with it when I return it. I can tuck little notes of paper, dog-ear the pages, juggle a stack much too large for me walking home from the library. I can use a thick one as a prop to rest my head on, wrapping it in my coat. 

I can walk to a store and spin a rack of them, surprised that a tiny campground has philosophy books for sale. I can locate them in rooms of my house, stashing them like hidden treasures.

All these things you cannot do with an e-reader, not in the same way. There are analogues, but they are bloodless: pictures on a screen. I will never see an e-book that smells old, sold at a flea market. Physicality adds so much to the experience, and makes new experiences possible. It reminds us that information does not exist in a vacuum, but is tied to a specific time and place. That many times it’s not just the information, but the object. It’s not just the love, but the lover.

Tomorrow I plan to go back and buy a pack of cards, placing them in the same bag as my netbook. And as much as I love my E-reader, my shelves are full of inefficient, analog books. There’s room for both, but the virtual will never supplant the physical. Efficiency is a good, but so is universality.

Game of 9-5 Pitch, anyone?

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The WSJ fracas.

Meghan Cox Gurdon has written a column on YA fiction in the Wall Street Journal. She isn’t happy with the level of sex and violence in young adult fiction. She has a point.

I believe that sex and violence, and depictions of them are not always needed. yes, people should write controversial books on subjects that happen to teens. Yes, drug abuse, self-mutilation, sexual abuse, and other painful issues exist. But there is a tremendous danger in that we don’t write these books to address the issue and to help young adults find solace, help, and heal.

We write them to get noticed on the slush pile. To get rewarded with awards for being edgy. To show how much of a serious writer we are. Maybe because we get a secret kick out of it. Don’t be surprised: it’s obvious that certain authors focus a little too closely on their pet themes and fetishes. We write them for all the wrong reasons.

We have a responsibility to the teens we write for as much as we have the need to expresses ourselves, and yes, make money. That’s why I’m not that comfortable with the traditional defenses of this. It tends to be more to dilute the impact of the book, and the responsibilities of the author. This is an invitation to self-reflection and a conversation with a reader. A good writer will reflect on this and examine their works. 

(Source: The Wall Street Journal)

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My Goodreads Adventure.

I’ve joined the social networking site Goodreads, at It’s strangely addictive. My name is DMDutcher if anyone wants to friend me or say hi.

It’s wonderful for market research, through it’s recommendation section. People ask the community for books to read, and anyone is free to respond to do so. It gives you a good head’s-up over what people like to read. I never realized how popular streampunk was, or how many young adults love and want Dystopian novels.

But even more, it lets you see what others read and enjoy. This broadens you, as people have surprisingly deep and eclectic tastes. It also shows you what people want, and lets you build a library of standards in a genre to read. It can be depressing: how many novels with vampires do people need? As a tool, it’s very useful.

Most importantly, it lets you immerse yourself with others in what is a very solitary pursuit: writing and reading. We are social animals, and even a tenuous, internet contact can feel welcome in the late night hours when it’s just you and your book.

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Eek! A YA Novel!

Discussing whether or not YA novels are the new “Sodom and Gomorrah.” The author says not, but I commented there are some problems due to the need to push the envelope to get noticed.

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Editing is an obsession

Everything you see reminds me of your book. You read something, and think Maybe my main character needs a scene similar. You can be out walking, and then an idea comes to you about how a certain scene should be rewritten. The first draft is the easiest part.

It’s also a time where doubts come in. Especially when you read other books. You’ve invested a lot of time and mental energy in it, and now are looking at the work of your hands with a critical eye. It’s difficult to have faith in yourself and your work, knowing that this is your first time, and you are bound to make mistakes. That it may very well be only a learning experience that stays in your hard drive as no one is interested.

But despite all that, it’s still invigorating. 

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The first draft is done.

I can finally say that I’ve written a novel. Before, I had written fragments of them, and a few short stories. But I always wondered if I really had it in me to finish the task. It’s good to know that even if it is a children’s novel, and brief for a first draft I can stay the distance.

Now, editing. I printed out a hard copy of the novel to set aside and edit later. I feel good about it, because I know it definitely needs some work. But that’s a relief rather than a shame. I look forwards to going over it with a red pen. There are foreshadowing elements I need to add: late in the novel a villain emerged, and he needs explanation. A certain minor character needs more “screen time.” Many things just developed as I wrote, and part of the editing task is to reconcile them. It’s like picking up sticks as you walk, only to need to tie them together with twine when they become to large to carry.

But tying is not as easy as it looks. Time to set it aside, celebrate a little, then come back to begin carving it even further into shape.

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Book Length

If it can be a single book, don’t make it into a trilogy. If it can be a trilogy, don’t make it into seven books. 

If it’s more than seven books, it should’t be made unless it’s a children’s chapter book. You will not be able to avoid disenchanting your reader. They will get tired of wading through subplots and digressions, and you introducing yet another villain, and yet another love interest for the hero. They may start to blur characters together, and notice all the quirks and crutches you rely on when inspiration fails.

Also, no one plans a twelve book series. My opinion is that you need to commit to book length at the beginning. A trilogy is as much a form as a short story or novella, and should be plotted as one. This doesn’t mean like The Hunger Games Trilogy each book is just a run on to the next, similar to how they show long movies in the theaters in two parts.

This means while every individual book is plotted to have a beginning, middle, and end, they also have signposts to the next, and are part of a meta-arc similar to individual novels. This may vary based on how hard the meta-arc is: The Chronicles of Narnia’s meta-arc is the birth and death of Narnia, more than the individual characters. Each novel serves as a snapshot of the history of Narnia, from beginning to end.

Economy however should be kept in mind. I know the business of writing rewards long series and padding, but it has many dangers. One danger is that it clutters shelves and reduces breadth. It’s hard to stock a wide variety of them when you have to deal with 12+ volume series, like in contemporary genre books. 

Another danger is that once you go past 7 volumes, the quality will always take a nosedive. Always. This is writer fatigue: no creative universe is powerful enough to mine perpetually. Most that do exist tend to shrink and harden into formulas. While this works for very young children, it can kill a series. I’d argue that epic fantasy lost its preeminence to supernatural-girl fantasy because of the decline of its “name” series. 

So, economy. Write new books, don’t perpetuate old ones beyond their time.

Filed under writing

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JSTI is one of my rules in fiction.

Just Shoot the Idiot.

It was coined during work. We were watching an episode of the Xfiles, where Mulder was chasing a Japanese man down the street, in order to capture him. So we get shot after shot of Mulder, gun in the hand, trying to run down a more athletic man, until he corners him. Then he remembers he is holding a gun.

JSTI is a rule that you always have to consider the easiest solution, and either structure a scene that it’s not an option, explain why it isn’t, or LET HIM DO IT.  Mulder could have needed to capture him unharmed, or he could be unwilling to shoot due to watching a perp bleed out from a leg wound as he resisted his attempts to help him. The gun could jam. Or it could be knocked out as he fell, but both of these are cliches. 

The point though is that when reading a passage or watching a scene, if the viewer’s thought is why doesn’t he just shoot the idiot, you’ve failed. if you constantly have to explain why he doesn’t just shoot the idiot, your character is too powerful for your story. Characters should be able to cut loose. If you give someone a gun, and have to apologize for him using it, you may not want to give him it at all.


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Some more thoughts on Twilight

Part of reading as a writer is often reading things you may dislike or have a strong instinctual revolt against, to shake you out of your comfort zone. It’s like a Republican reading the Huffington Post. Without this you get fossilized in your worldview, like a bug stuck in amber, and your writing suffers. You get cramped.

I didn’t expect to enjoy it. I confess that I harbored a secret affirmation before reading it based on the controversy. Usually if people hate something, really hate it with a passion, there has to be something good in the work. People don’t hate bland and insipid works: they hate the good ones gone bad.

There’s a lot to say about it, but I think much of the hate has to do with the genders of the main characters. What Edward does is often creepy to many because he is male, and Bella is annoying because she is female. If you reversed the genders, you’d see much of the hate evaporate.

An example is Edward watching over her while she sleeps. There is a way as a writer to justify this specifically. Since all Edward does during the day is shine, draw attention to the fact that as an undead, he can’t sleep. However given that I am working on memory, I may have missed the fact he does or he doesn’t: the Cullen vampires don’t play by so many rules that they might very well sleep. This is a tangent, though.

Now imagine Bella is the vampire, who sneaks in and watches Edward sleep. Is the instinctual gut reaction she is a creepy stalker? No. I think it’s because we view an act like that by a woman as empowered, or tender. Again, these are instinctual feelings, and in the end it may be just as creepy. But the mask hides it.

Also, but less visible, is Bella’s attitude towards Edward. It’s rare for the woman to be pursued and submissive, and it grates on modern sensibilities. It grates on mine at times, although constant riffs by Edward calling her out on it helps to defuse that. They also are a nice “take that” against other vampire novels where the heroines have little qualms about jumping into bed with un-dead.

If you reverse this though, and the man is pursued, and infatuated with an eternal vampire, it’s much more palatable. This is because again, the power is with the woman, and the myth of the seductress is more powerful than the seducer. Even the names are showing the subtle difference. A seductress is glamorous, and the word rolls off the tongue.

This shows the power of reversing tropes, whether consciously or unconsciously. Gender tropes are ingrained at us at a deep level, and reversing a dominant one brings a strong reaction. Twilight might be a case of competing tropes butting against each other. Mormonism is one of the few cultures that seem to be successfully existing against the mainstream western world view. That’s too deep for a rambling thought piece, however.

I’m tempted to write the reverse Twilight for kicks, to see how it would flow.