Marketing Books for Free?

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Image Source: Pixabay, congerdesign.

The Dragonling is now in the hands of my most trusted beta readers, and I am wrapping up front and back matter, updating web pages, cleaning out files, and working on the first revision of Book 6. (Book 6 is actually more like a first draft because it’s comprised of everything from the original draft plus everything that was cut from the previous books, so somehow I have to mash all of that into a comprehensible ending for the series. It’s such a collection of spare parts and scraps right now, I’m tempted to make its working title The Frankenstein-ling.) So for today’s blog, I decided to clean out my old blog, too, and resuscitate an old article with new life.

I came across an article I wrote when The Changeling was first published; I was offering free copies for a few days. I was a new indie author, and it was my first book, so I thought it would help with promotional exposure and “discoverability” (the current buzz word in marketing). Lots of new indie authors take this route. It was a controversial marketing move back then, and it continues to be a point of debate today. Should new authors, artists, and other professional “creatives” offer their works for free?

Some people dislike the idea because if you offer something for nothing, people come to expect it as a regular thing. It lowers the value of the market overall, but it takes the highest toll on the creative professional as an individual. It takes a lot of TIME to create things like novels and professional quality art. The Dragonling has taken two years to craft … so far. It still has to endure the beta read, the final revisions, and the final edit before it’s ready for official publication. That’s about 500 pages of work going through about 7 revisions total in the end. That’s waking up every day at 6:00 a.m. and logging in anywhere from 4 to 19 hours a day of drafting, researching, and editing, even on weekends and holidays. (And that’s not including the time and effort spent on cover illustration or marketing.) Creative work is a labor of love for the creative professional, but it IS labor, and our time and effort are worth something because we have bills to pay, too. No other profession puts that much work into a product only to give it away for nothing. Can you imagine telling a doctor you expect the first visit to be free, because you don’t want to have to pay until you know you’re going to like the service?

There is also the argument regarding whether give-aways actually work as a marketing tool. Most people who snatch up the freebies snatch them because they’re free, not necessarily because they’re truly interested in the product. A lot of one-star reviews come from freebie offers because the consumer didn’t invest anything in narrowing down his or her own preferences for the purchase. And free literature doesn’t necessarily lead to more reviews in return. Something-for-nothing receivers are under no legal obligation to return the favor, even when authors bait them by saying, “I’ll give you a free book if you review it.” Maybe it’s because some readers don’t understand how reviews are the lifeblood of marketing for authors, but usually reviews don’t happen simply due to lack of time or inclination. So, if it isn’t a long-awaited sequel, from a favourite author, or a book that really, surprisingly impressed, most reads will not result in reviews. Many free books aren’t even opened.

On the flip side, those freebies I gave away did result in some really nice, very gracious reviews I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I probably would not have reached my initial audience or found regular readers had I not offered that first book for free to draw attention to the fact that this series exists. And as a reader and consumer myself, OF COURSE I want to save money! So, yes, I will look for free books before I look for cheap books, and save the expensive ones ($15-20 for an e-book? Seriously?) for last.

Right now all of my finished books fall into the “cheap” category because I realize people are hesitant to spend money on an author and series they’ve never heard of. But it’s also important to me that my books be reasonably affordable because my love of reading comes from growing up reading stacks of library books. Had it not been for free library books, I would not have become a good reader or writer … because I couldn’t afford to buy books, otherwise. I side with Neil Gaiman on this matter in saying I don’t care whether you bought my book, borrowed my book, or don’t like my book and choose to read something else. Just read. Reading is fundamental to a free society.

But I, too, must pay bills and eat. 🙂 So, if you enjoyed any books in the series (however you got your hands on them), please leave a review to help other readers know what you thought of it, so they can decide for themselves whether they might enjoy them, too. For those readers who have already left reviews, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. It does take time and effort to write a thoughtful review, but it’s always appreciated by the author, especially if that author does not have a big-selling name that helps books market themselves.

There comes a point when the creator deserves to be paid for the creation, or eventually she will stop creating and have to find another job. So, if a book, song, handcrafted item, or other creative work lifts your spirits or offers a few minutes of fun or a few years of beauty, support your favourite author, musician, and artist by offering a few dollars and reviews.

“Oscar Wilde quite rightly said, ‘All art is useless’. And that may sound as if that means it’s something not worth supporting. But if you actually think about it, the things that matter in life are useless. Love is useless. Wine is useless. Art is the love and wine of life. It is the extra, without which life is not worth living.” (~ Stephen Fry)

Dragonling Update: Time for Betas!

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Image Source: Clipart Kid.

This morning I finished my fourth revision of The Dragonling.

(Pardon me whilst I blow horns and throw confetti.) 🙂

It’s actually more like the fifth revision because I got about 80% through the fourth revision and realized I had a huge plot hole that needed mending. It was big. And it involved going back to the beginning and finding ALL of the places where I was working up to a particular event because I had to tweak them and change the order of a few things. If that doesn’t sour your day as a writer, nothing will. But I digress.

After two years in production, this book is now ready for beta readers. Took a whole year longer than my other books because I had to go back and re-read them and take notes on them to make sure I didn’t miss bringing any plot threads together for this one. In mentioning this to a few friends and family, I got the return question, “What’s a beta reader?” So, I’ll offer a brief answer here.

Just like it sounds, a beta reader is someone who reviews the script before it’s published. My experience with alpha readers is that they offer feedback on sections of the work before the entire script is finished. Thus, betas are usually the second set of people to see it and from beginning to end, rather than in pieces. The beta reader is not an editor or proof-reader, but they can call out mistakes and make suggestions like those professions all the same. Beta readers usually aren’t hired professionals, but they can be.

Basically a beta reader is someone who matches the type of audience you would be selling the book to, so they can give critical feedback from a reader perspective. Beta readers need to be able to express WHY they did or did not like something and note any confusion or major reactions to let the writer know the work’s strengths and weaknesses, rather than offering a generalized, “I loved it!” or “It sucked!” Anyone a writer would trust to give honest critical feedback can be a beta reader.

In the case of The Dragonling, however, my choices are little more limited. The monkey wrench in finding beta readers for this book is that it’s the fifth in a series. It’s not a fifth volume in a collection, either. It’s a fifth book in an arc. That means the reader really needs to have read the first four books before attempting to tackle this one, or they’re going to miss a lot of references from them and possibly risk not understanding the main plot. Finding beta readers for stand-alone books is much easier.

The other problem with finding beta readers is that authors want to find someone they can depend on. If betas are too busy, don’t enjoy reading, or don’t enjoy your genre, you may never see feedback from them. And you will have wasted a month or more waiting for it. That’s a month or more that you could have been seeking another beta reader, or at least sent it off to the editor for the final edits. It’s not necessary to have beta readers, but most writers find their feedback helpful, if not invaluable.

So, if anyone ever asks you to do a beta reading, only take the job if you are genuinely interested in the author’s work, have the time to finish reading the script in a timely fashion, and can offer commentary along the way. If you offer to beta for a writer, but then something comes up and you can’t do it, let them know you need to cancel ASAP.

Wish me luck in finding any previous beta readers who would be willing to test drive this baby! And then I am ready for a hard-earned vacation while I await the returns! (Actually, knowing me … I will shorten vacation to focus on further developing book 6. I don’t know how to not write.)
-_-*

Book Review: The Places That Scare You

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Book: The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times
Series:
Author: Pema Chödrön
Genres: Non-fiction, Self-Help, Meditation, Buddhism

Synopsis (from Amazon book page):

“We always have a choice, Pema Chödrön teaches: We can let the circumstances of our lives harden us and make us increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us and make us kinder. Here Pema provides the tools to deal with the problems and difficulties that life throws our way. This wisdom is always available to us, she teaches, but we usually block it with habitual patterns rooted in fear. Beyond that fear lies a state of openheartedness and tenderness. This book teaches us how to awaken our basic goodness and connect with others, to accept ourselves and others complete with faults and imperfections, and to stay in the present moment by seeing through the strategies of ego that cause us to resist life as it is.”

Notes of Interest:

I bought this book because I’ve been at a very tough place for the past four years, and my gut instinct tells me things are going to get worse before they get better. Meditation has been a real game-changer for my depression and anxiety. But lately I’ve been feeling I’m going to need a deeper practice to get me through the next several bumps in life. This book was among some Goodreads recommendations by Elizabeth Gilbert, and at a glimpse, seemed to be just the dose of wisdom I need and will continue to need for future reference.

This book has a Buddhist spiritual context because the author is a Buddhist monk. But meditation itself can be used as a secular and scientifically proven psychological aid. And the advice presented here can serve as tool for coping with secular, psychological obstacles without having to be Buddhist.

What could have made it better for me:

I honestly had no negative notes or feelings about this book. The language is clear. The content is well-organized. Pragmatic examples of the principles discussed are clearly illustrated. And it’s technically flawless. But most importantly, it’s exactly what I needed. And I think that might be key to anyone considering purchasing it. If you are looking for a quick fix for your anxiety and phobias, this is not it. This is not a book for people offended at Buddhist principles or terminology, either. Nor is this a book for people who are not ready and willing to look in the mirror and begin making changes within themselves to overcome their problems.

What I liked about it:

I think this work has earned the most highlights I have ever given to a book. Seriously. There is probably at least one highlight on every page. I loved it that much and found it that relevant. That makes it extremely difficult for me to pull out the shiniest pearls of wisdom to show off in my review. But I will attempt to summarize the basic concept behind this book as I understand it.

The Buddhist concept of the compassionate warrior presented here can be used on a secular level, or dug into deeper as a study of “bodhichitta” or enlightenment. I’m going to speak of it on a secular level because I feel so many people could benefit from it, regardless of faith, or lack thereof.

In a nutshell, the practice of the compassionate warrior is this. You have to train yourself to confront what you fear in order to make it lose its power over you. To sit with your discomfort, your anger, your fear, all your negative emotions takes courage. After all, it’s uncomfortable. But all emotions, good and bad, are fleeting. So, training comes in learning to not hold onto the “good” ones or shy away from the “bad” ones. Grasping and aversion is what causes suffering. We’re not happy when we can’t have what we DO want. And avoiding what we DON’T want is running away from problems, so that doesn’t solve anything.

We start with meditating on self-compassion because if we do not have compassion for ourselves, we cannot generate compassion for anyone else. We often criticize ourselves for our reactions to things that frighten us, make us anxious, or otherwise put us in that place of discomfort. We often reach for exterior comforts (food, alcohol, escapism, etc.) because we never truly learned how to love and comfort ourselves. So, the compassionate warrior sits with discomfort until she can let it go, and this is an act of self-love, self-compassion because holding onto past hurts or running from future worries causes more suffering.

When we can face our fears, being kind and forgiving of ourselves for having those negative reactions, and learn to let go, the next step is learning how to support our loved ones in a similar fashion (rather than reacting with criticism when things don’t go the way we want). When you can do that and you’re ready for a challenge, the next arm of the outward spiral is to train with compassion for the difficult people in your life. (Yeah, that person that gets under your skin every time he opens his mouth, or every time she backs you into a corner.) This in itself is a means of confronting, staying, and releasing any fear or other negative emotions associated with our difficult people, so that compassion has a chance to create a different dynamic in the relationship. And if you train long enough to build that muscle of compassion, you can learn to develop compassion for strangers and finally all living beings.

Sounds easy, right? It’s not. Human nature is reactive. We get upset when our desires are blocked or not met. So, training the mind to react differently is a lifetime challenge, even for the meditation expert. Moving your mental practice from the mat into your daily life is always going to be difficult because you have no way of knowing what life is going to throw at you every day. Every day will present at least one opportunity for you to practice staying with and letting go of negative reactions. But the goal is to gain enough experience diffusing difficult situations that it becomes easier and more natural over time. This is how fear loses its power over us.

Recommendation:

I highly recommend this book for anyone struggling through difficult times, particularly for anyone coping with anxiety issues. I will be buying her other book, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times next. And I’m sure I will consult both books frequently over the coming years because our society does not teach children (or adults) how to fail, how to have resilience. The goal is always to win, to succeed, to not appear weak in any way … perfection. Our parents tell us this. Our teachers tell us this. The business world tells us this. The media tells us this.

But that picture of success is not the same thing as integrity. So when things fall apart — and they WILL — the more tools we have for coping and then moving beyond the difficulties, the better.

If you were ever curious about meditation or the study of Buddhism, this book provides a simple and clear introduction to terms and practices. But one need not be Buddhist to benefit from the psychological advice given here.

Character Interview: Aija, the Rogue

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Image Source: My personal Skyrim game. I usually end up throwing my novel characters into the games I play to give me a better sense of how they might develop in terms of skills. And sometimes their adventures end up shredded and reshaped as part of their background. Putting Aija in Skyrim meant having her do mostly the odd-job side quests … and mostly without magic. After all, she’s supposed to be in hiding, rather than a prominent member of society.

As I close in on the final 10 chapters of the beta script, I thought I’d share another character interview. I’ve already featured Shei (the bard) and Trizryn (the thief) with this little quiz, so this week I decided to throw the same questions at Aija.

It’s always fun to compare and contrast character voices to make sure they are as unique as possible. While Shei and Trizryn are best friend and foils, Aija is the outsider. She’s the only true human in the cast, but in the land of the fae, that makes her stand out in a crowd. As the other main protagonist, it is her story that gets the ball rolling for the Elf Gate series. And it is her voice that most closely matches the reader’s in terms of first impressions about this Other World. Aija’s story is a coming-of-age story primarily. She goes from feeling like she lives a dull life with no purpose and experiences limited mostly to what she had to learn for school, to suddenly having to hide, run, and fight for her life in a land where her very existence could earn her a beheading, no questions asked. Aija is a dynamic character by design. She starts slow and has a lot to learn. But she does learn and even becomes a bit of a leader over the course of the series. I intentionally designed her to grow in the opposite manner of Trizryn. He starts strong and has to learn humility and vulnerability. She starts humble and vulnerable, but has to learn to be strong. I designed her this way because I did not want a damsel in distress who always needed someone to save her, but neither did I want a “strong female character” who suddenly knows everything and can do everything without help. She’s smart and capable. But she’s human. So, she does the best she can with that.

Aija is a rogue character, which is a lot like a bard and a thief, but the emphasis is on versatility of skills. She started with a love of lore about magical creatures, thanks to her grandmother’s old books. And she has a natural talent with drawing. But after landing in Aesethna, she’s had to learn survival skills, self-defense, a new language, and more about magic than she ever thought she’d need to know. Aija’s biggest asset is that she has a beginner’s mind; she’s open to learning new things. But her teachers come from all walks of life, so her growing collection of knowledge and skills make her a “jack of all trades, master of none.”

Here’s how Aija did when put to the same character development interview as her elven cohorts. 🙂

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Aija was my excuse to bring steampunk and modern elements into my game in Skyrim. But in my novel its the elves who straddle that line between old and new. She just does her best to blend in so that no one, other than her friends, notices she’s human.

1. What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Saturday mornings, sleeping in. Eating juicy tangerines in the sun. Or chocolates. (shrug) Maybe I’m too simple, but simple pleasures matter a lot to me.
2.What is your greatest fear?
I used to be afraid of getting lost, being alone in the dark, being dependent, heights … The list goes on and on, but I keep having to face these fears again and again. So, I’ve learned now that they’re not going to go away. It’s not that I’ve become braver; I just try to take them as they come, somehow.
3. What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
Honestly? I hate that I can’t do magic. Not on my own. Not like the fae. I feel utterly useless around them sometimes. So, I’m working on that, too. Trizryn’s teaching me sorcery. Féonna and Shei are teaching me wizardry. And Gaellyna’s teaching me alchemy. My options are limited, but even if I can’t do magic, understanding it is better than nothing.
4. What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Cruelty. I’ve been surrounded by “monsters” living among fae, but it’s still normal people that often behave the most monstrous.
5. Which living person do you most admire?
Trizryn. I mean, okay, he’s not … that great of a role model. But he doesn’t pretend to be. I appreciate that he tries to do the right thing these days. He’s trying to better himself. And I think that’s powerful because that’s really all any of us can do. He’s still going to make mistakes. He’s still going to fail. But it’s how he gets back up again that inspires me.
6. What is your greatest extravagance?
Uhhhh … I have no idea how to answer that. (laughs) Chocolates? Cake?
7. What is your current state of mind?
Hmmm … Torn. I want to go home. I miss my family and friends. Aesethna isn’t exactly the safest place in the world for me. But … I can’t bear the thought of leaving, either. I’ve got friends who are like family to me here now. I can’t bear the thought of never seeing them again if I do go home, and that gate closes forever behind me.
8. What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
Courage. I think what a lot of people think qualifies as courage is really just reckless apathy. To be fearless isn’t necessarily a good thing. I think real courage means being terrified, but somehow making yourself do it anyway. And I think there’s different kinds of courage. It’s not all about facing down dragons, so to speak. Sometimes it’s about being honest when you look in the mirror.
9. On what occasion do you lie?
Oh God. I hate lying. I hate it. But I’ve done it for Triz multiple times, and for others on occasion. I think there are times when truth does more harm than good, so unless there is a time and place for it, sometimes lies and secrets do a better job protecting people from unnecessary conflict. But I do absolutely hate having to keep secrets.
10. What do you most dislike about your appearance?
I’m short. (laughs) Do you know what it’s like to be the short one among all those tall fae? Even Féonna’s taller than me. Wee people and little folk, indeed … tsk.

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Self-defense on a grand scale … something Aija never had to worry about before quite the way she does now.

11. Which living person do you most despise?
Ilisram. He is the epitome of what it means to be selfish and cruel, in my opinion. Mahntarei was selfish and cruel, but he was a touch mad, too. Ilisram knows better, but hurts people anyway.
12. What is the quality you most like in a man?
Humility. (smiles) I like someone who can apologize when he’s wrong … and mean it. Lip service isn’t the same as a change of heart. I’m not into macho bravado at all. A gentle man who’s not afraid to show compassion is someone I feel I could trust.
13. What is the quality you most like in a woman?
Friendliness. Wait, what is this rubbish Triz and Shei have scratched through on their interviews here? Let me guess. They said boobs and legs, right?
14. Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
Oh, em … the word sorry. Definitely sorry. Triz once said I used it like a tic.
15. What or who is the greatest love of your life?
Trizryn. (smiles) He’s solid, you know? He’s always got my back, even when it seems like he doesn’t. He’s taught me a lot about my own strengths and weaknesses. And it’s because of him I’ve learned what I’m really capable of doing when pushed. I just want to see him happy; I think he deserves to be happy after everything he’s been through. If I can be part of that, then that makes me happy, too.
16. When and where were you happiest?
Before going through the Gate of Min? Riding my horse, hiking in the woods, sketching … After going through the Gate of Min? Seeing the world of the fae is really cool … so long as no one’s trying to kill me. That puts a bit of a damper on things.
17. Which talent would you most like to have?
I’d like to be a better artist. And I’d like to be able to do more with magic.
18. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I’d like to be more capable. I know that sort of thing takes time, but … like I said, sometimes I feel quite useless among the fae. Maybe that’s what motivates me to take up Gáraketh’s quest for the alliance. If I can do that, he won’t have died in vain.
19. What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Learning telekinesis. The hardest thing I’ve ever done was lift that stupid little river rock Triz gave me. Now I can throw people off their feet and disarm opponents just like him.
20. If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?
Heh. Well, I think all bets are on me coming back as a vampire, considering how tainted I am with Triz’s blood. But let’s hope not, eh? I’m not ready to give up sweets yet.

02GotIt
Rogue characters are generally lumped into bard and thief categories; but they aren’t usually talented performers, and they’re not necessarily treasure hunters. Rogues stand out as having versatile skill sets. So, she might be charismatic like a bard, but light and agile on her feet like a thief. Or more precisely, Aija’s strength is that she is open to learning just about anything from anyone. She might not be able to master the skill, but being versatile has its own benefits.

21. Where would you most like to live?
I’d like to be able to take Triz home with me. I think he’d like Yorkshire. The question is whether Yorkshire would like him. An elf they’d be happy to gander at, but probably not big fans of vampires.
22. What is your most treasured possession?
That stupid little river rock? Yeah. Not the most expensive or magical item I’m carrying. In fact, it’s probably the most ordinary. But … definitely the most precious. Oh! That and my Gran’s gold ring that she gave me. Oh, wait, I’m wearing Trizryn’s signet ring, too, now. He’d kill me if I lost that.
23. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Not having hope. Not having a reason to go on. I’ve come close to feeling that way a few times, but … someone always manages to lift me up. Good friends are priceless like that.
24. What is your favorite occupation?
Haven’t a clue. Seriously. Maybe I can sell my elf sketches when I go home. Make them into a manga. I have lots of good models right now. (sneaky grin)
25. What is your most marked characteristic?
You see this mole right here? (points to upper lip) It follows me. Everywhere. I can cover up the scars on my leg and abdomen, but no amount of make-up will make this disappear.
26. What do you most value in your friends?
Inclusiveness. They accept me as I am, even though I’m human. And I know I can count on them to be there for me when I need them. And it’s not just me. They’re all so different from one another. Sometimes they have issues with that, but mostly they try to get along and learn to appreciate those differences. Frostfang had a huge problem with finding out I was human because it was the human invasion that started the War of the Blood Reign, for example. But … I took care of her egg when she went missing, so … she knows she can trust me now. And even though she tried to roast and eat me when we first met, as far as dragons go, she’s not that bad.
27. Who are your favorite writers?
Oh, em, I don’t really … read as much as I used to when I was a kid. But I love mythology and nursery stories. I’m always up for reading those. Maybe Tolkien or Rowling … (taps finger thoughtfully against cheek)
28. Who is your hero of fiction?
Harry Potter. No, wait, the Doctor. No, Bilbo Baggins. Spock! Okay, that’s a bad question. How can you possibly expect me to have only one answer for that?
29. Which historical figure do you most identify with?
(Puffs bangs out of eyes and thinks hard … really hard.) Next question?
30. Who are your heroes in real life?
My friends. They are … amazing.

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There’s a few times in my books that Aija mentions she has an Irish wolfhound named Mirk. Imagine my squee of delight when I started playing Skyrim and discovered you could own a pet wolfhound in the game. Aija is an animal lover. Besides Mirk, she loves horses and helps take care of Trizryn’s black mare, Zhenta. She also befriends a special little mouse, which she names Henry. But Henry is much more than a wee beastie. 😉

31. What are your favorite names?
Oh, dear. I kind of like the name Kethrei. Sssh! Don’t tell Triz. I mean that used to be his name, and it suits him well still; but I don’t think he appreciates it so much now, and there’s no telling what might happen if he started answering to his past, rather than his present.
32. What is it that you most dislike?
Spiders and zombies and I do not get on well. But I think I’d have to say heights make me really, really uncomfortable. Spiders and zombies up high would probably be the death of me.
33. What is your greatest regret?
Leaving my own world without knowing whether or not the dragon of Min attacked Winderbury. For all I know, he’s killed Kim, my family, my pets … and everyone else. I have no way of knowing or doing anything about it … unless we can find a gate back.
34. How would you like to die?
No, thank you. I’d rather not. That is the whole point of Triz hiding me from Erys and the Derra Eirlyn, yeah? NOT dying?
35. What is your motto?
I once told Triz that our mistakes make us who we are. Everything we experience makes us who we are, but mistakes in particular force us to choose between suffering repeats, or learning and growing. So, when I make mistakes, I try to ask myself if I grew … if I learned. If I can learn something from it, I don’t feel so bad about having made a mistake.

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Whether it’s facing off against wolves or facing off against her friends, Aija’s vulnerability is kind of what makes her special in a setting where everyone else has so many more advantages than she does. I think that’s what I like most about writing for Aija’s character. She has to put a little more effort into solving her problems the mundane way, just like most of us mere mortals do.

The Capriciousness of Creativity

Thursdays are my days for blog drafting … according to my new schedule … which fluctuates with the seasons, events, and moods in my life quite often. Yesterday, I was suffering a migraine and nausea and various other spring allergy garbage so I found myself drifting across the internet without purpose, rather than drafting this week’s blog article. It happens.

Today I am trying to rescue my very unproductive yesterday. First, I read an article on long novels in hopes that would inspire me to draft something inspiring, educational, or at the very least witty. Instead, I am writing about … not writing.

But in sifting through the drafts of my previous articles, I found one concept file that I started and didn’t finish (ironically) after watching this TED talk from author Elizabeth Gilbert on “Your Elusive Creative Genius”.

If you don’t have time to watch the video, she basically distinguishes the difference between “being” a genius (which puts a lot of pressure and stress on outstanding productivity in creative professions), and “having” a genius (which is not only the historical/etymological origin of the term, but also humanizes the creator). The word “genius” comes from Latin and originally referred to a guardian spirit or deity that watched over a person from birth … a sort of spirit guide that helps you out in moral dilemmas or situations that require intuitive wisdom, wit, or other creative problem solving methods. It is comparable to saying the creative person has a muse that inspires his or her work. The genius was not considered good or evil by nature, but was just present to inspire.

On a side note, the word “genie” has nothing to do with “genius” because “genie” is Arabic in origin. But it does come from the word “jinn” … which is also a spirit. Jinn are considered “trickster” spirits, so they are viewed as evil more often than not. But their base nature was originally considered neutral. And more interesting, the word “demon” comes from Greek “daimon” and Latin “daemon”, but also used to refer only to a guiding spirit or lesser god. In other words, “demon” did not carry any negative connotations until the Christian church started using it thus, because of their own belief that any spirit other than their own deity was evil. But I digress. 🙂

The concept here is that if creative inspiration comes to you from a factor outside of yourself, like a spirit, that creates an interesting understanding of the capriciousness of creative inspiration. Ask any writer, and you will be told the best ideas do not come to you while you are sitting at your keyboard plotting. Your best ideas will come to you when you are in the shower. Or when you are driving. Or when you are getting in bed, have the lights off, and really do not want to walk across the house in the dark to grab your notepad and pen. Your best ideas will come to you when you are as inconvenienced as possible for catching them and pinning them down into notes you can work with.

The same is true of other arts. I often see faces or creatures in rug patterns, tree shapes, rocks, and other items that make me think, “That would make an awesome sketch!” But as soon as I walk away, it’s gone. Thousands of sketch ideas have been lost from one wood pattern in my door on a daily basis. Why? Because who has a sketchpad and a pencil when they’re getting dressed or putting away laundry?

This is so common to most creatives, in fact, that it would almost be a comfort to know that there is some kind of spirit imp hanging over my shoulder, snickering at how clever he is with casting ideas out there at inappropriate times, and then jerking them back as soon as I blink. And in some cases, perhaps thinking like that can help creatives lessen their burden. If the creative ideas are external, rather than internal, what is the logical solution to jump-starting your creativity?

First of all, it gives the creative person a choice. I can choose to snatch that idea and do something with it, or I can choose to let it go and it may or may not come back to me, but I go into that choice knowing that it is my choice — knowing how capricious ideas come and go because that is their nature, so I accept that I can’t count on that idea being there for very long or coming back. I will put more effort into keeping a notepad by the bed or shower or in the car, so that I have a better chance of snatching that idea out of the air and capturing it for later use.

Second, it gives the creative person freedom. Knowing I don’t have to sit at the keyboard to brainstorm ideas means I can take a walk, go on an adventure, live my life as I normally would, but keep a writing notebook handy to jot down ideas as I go along. In fact, I’m more likely to have more ideas while doing other things, than while trying to be creative at my work space. My work space is primarily for organizing, developing, and producing those ideas … not giving birth to them.

Third, it eases the expectations we creatives have of ourselves by giving us space between what we do and who we are. If you are a creative person, you know how difficult this is because your mental health probably depends on being able to create. You might not know what to do with yourself if you can’t create. In this sense, perhaps creativity is a lot like being possessed of a little spirit, so that you and your desire to create are one. But if we cannot unplug from those expectations now and then, we burn out. And if other people expect us to be switched on all the time, they will be disappointed when one creative project succeeds, but the next fails. It’s as if we failed, but really it’s just that human beings can’t be switched on all the time. No profession or individual can do this and maintain good health. I often say I AM a writer because it’s such a part of me that I can’t NOT design new story ideas or characters in my head. But even I have moments when I have to put the writing aside to get other stuff done. In those moments, I need to be able to cage the spirit and cover it, or I won’t be able to function in day-to-day life. If you are a creative person, you are probably nodding along because you have lived this, too. You get it.

So, the next time your creative genius flies off and leaves you high and dry for ideas, maybe try to reconsider it as a blessing. It’s a chance to rest. It’s an opportunity to leave your desk jockeying position and do something else that will invite your muse to return under better circumstances. And it’s a chance to prepare your living space to work in-sync with his capricious nature.

My Muse
My muse doodles a lot. 🙂

Look at that! A blog article born from the lack of inspiration for writing today’s blog … 🙂 I think I will thank the genius sitting on my shoulder for rescuing me today and give him the weekend off from writing, so that I can come back on Monday with fresh energy and ideas.

Joys and Disappointments of Re-Reading

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Image Source: OpenClipart by bf5man

Last week I did a book review for 1984 — a book which I stated having already read four times. I read an article this morning that made me think a little more deeply about why some of us re-read some books and not others. Is there any benefit in reading something more than once? Spoilers aren’t the only disappointments that can go along with multiple readings. The answers to why someone would re-read a book probably vary as much as people and the books they choose to read. But I was curious, so jotted down some of my own reasoning.

Disappointments

Let’s start with the obvious disappointment — spoilers. The reason I don’t re-read most books (or re-watch most movies) is because I already know what’s going to happen. I can NOT know what’s going to happen. So, the element of surprise, the plot twist, the freshness of getting to know new characters, the shock of losing a character, the absolute immersion of that first read is forever lost after the initial curiosity has been explored and satisfied. It’s a wonder anyone purchases any book or film based on that alone. Checking them out at a library or renting a view from Netflix will do for most one-time stories.

Another category of disappointments might be more personal. Perhaps I outgrew a book I loved as a child. Perhaps my ideology changed. Perhaps my education or life experience turned me in a different direction. It’s hard to appreciate fairy tales or romances in which the prince and princess live “happy ever after” when facing divorce because “forever love” becomes as credible a concept as unicorn poop. A doctor might read about a fictional wound and be critical of the author’s lack of real medical knowledge. Or a scientist might point out a flaw in a sci-fi or fantasy setting. Or perhaps a white author’s attempt to portray a black character is handled in a way that the reader finds offensive. These little annoyances can often be forgiven during initial reads because we’re distracted by other stuff going on, or we were too young or inexperienced to know or care. But as we grow and change, details like that can get under the skin like a pebble trapped in a shoe.

The third kind of disappointments with re-reading can be more mundane, namely time and energy. If my time and energy are limited, then I have to make choices about what I read, how much I read at a time, and consider why I’m reading it so that I can prioritize. I used to spend my high school summers lying in the backyard with a stack of sci-fi library books because the only reading I could do during the school year was school related. Summer was for MY reading list, and aside from part-time jobs, I had all the time in the world to delve into imaginative worlds. Now, I can barely squeeze in 30 minutes before bed, and even that’s not a guarantee every night. Do I really want to spend my precious 30 minutes re-reading something I’ve already read, rather than exploring something new? And if I’m tired, can I stick with it if it’s not fresh?

Joys

In spite of the reasons for not bothering to read books a second time … I do. I think perhaps the main reason for this is because I grew up loving books as if they were best friends. I’m an only child and spent most of my childhood reading, writing, drawing, and making music to keep myself entertained without having to rely on other people. Later I added language and culture studies to my alone-time interests. I went to the library once a week and came home with — literally — armloads of books, some that that were new, others that I had already read multiple times. I handled them with care, never dog-earing a page, never writing in them, never letting them get wet, always returning them on time … so that they would be there when I wanted them again. I was a member of several book clubs in and out of school, and I looked forward each month to receiving my little cardboard box in the mail or ordering through the Scholastic catalog. Books were treats, fond memories, comforts always there for me, even when people were not. I kept some of those book club favourites, and looking through them now is like looking through a family photo album. I can remember how old I was, where I lived, and what my interests were during my first read. Growing up, it becomes harder to make time for old friends, but familiarity and comfort are probably my number one reasons for keeping old books and reading them more than once.

My second most prominent reason for re-reading is depth. This is what applies to re-reads like 1984. My first read was in high school, and it was assigned, and it was taught with a particular political and religious bias because of the school I attended. I appreciated this book because it was a good dystopian story, but admittedly, most of the details were memorized for a test or writing a book report. When I had to read it a second time under college direction, my personal circumstances had changed. I realized much of the first read went over my head. And my disposition in life was different by then for a number of reasons. It felt like I was reading a hidden layer underneath the obvious one. I liked that. I was seeing things that made me pause and re-think interpretations I’d been taught. I was seeing parallels to other books and historical or current events. The third time I read the book, I was the teacher, so I dug even deeper. And this most recent fourth read went even deeper still. Every time I read this book I see a new layer of details and intangible subject matter. Books that evoke that kind of response deserve to be called classics and should be read more than once.

But perhaps the best reason for re-reading a book is the most simple: fun. It doesn’t have to be a childhood favourite or a literary masterpiece. Sometimes if it was fun the first time, it can be fun again for the same reasons you found it entertaining in the first place. Really that is the ultimate reason why we read fiction in the first place — for entertainment. If the book does nothing more than that, it has still done its job of providing a pleasant activity for a short time. Fandoms are built upon this kind of devotional investments in fictional worlds and characters. And in non-fiction, inspirational, practical, or academic refreshing of knowledge is always beneficial. I am currently reading Pema Chodron’s The Places That Scare You, and I can already tell I will be re-reading that one many times over for the remainder of my life. It’s so relative to me, personally.

If my forever home could have a floor-to-ceiling, grand library to keep all the books that I ever loved, I’d probably never use any other room in the house, except to eat, sleep, and shower. Realistically, I know I’d never be able to re-read that many books. I’d be desperate for new material, so why I hoard old books is a mystery to me. But every room in my current house has at least one bookshelf filled with books that I have either re-read, or that I intend to “someday” re-read. Some I hang onto for reference. Others I hang onto for memories and pleasure. And when I move into my next home, though it will be much smaller, I know I will have a hard time parting with many of my favourite books due to lack of space. I can’t imagine not having books available for re-reading.

Book Review: 1984

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Book: 1984
Series:
Author: George Orwell
Genres: literary, dystopian

Synopsis (from Amazon book page):

“In 1984, London is a grim city where Big Brother is always watching you and the Thought Police can practically read your mind. Winston is a man in grave danger for the simple reason that his memory still functions. Drawn into a forbidden love affair, Winston finds the courage to join a secret revolutionary organization called The Brotherhood, dedicated to the destruction of the Party. Together with his beloved Julia, he hazards his life in a deadly match against the powers that be.”

Notes of Interest:

This is actually the fourth time I’ve read this book. My first reading was in high school while attending a private religious school. My second reading was in college, also a private religious school, but with an open-minded English professor. My third reading was with my own children when they were studying high school English. And recently I picked it up again, like many other people, because of some uncanny parallels between this piece of fiction and our current events in reality. It never ceases to amaze me that every time I pick up this book, I find something new I didn’t notice before. It is timeless. It is universal. It is a true classic. It is not an easy read, but it’s well worth it, in my opinion.

I haven’t written a review on it in decades. And while I don’t have previous reviews on hand for comparison, this last reading was done from a liberal, secular perspective. Each reading was influenced by political or religious background, so it’s interesting to see the scope from right to left shift as to how this book’s “prophetic” themes can be interpreted. There is so much to say about this book that I feel very limited on this blog. Since it has been reviewed and studied copiously enough on a technical analytical level, I’ll try to stick to the theme of divisive interpretation.

What could have made it better for me:

The short and sweet of it is this book is perfect the way it is. My only complaint is that it’s dated, coming from the post WWII era, but that’s not really a complaint so much as an acknowledgment that a certain level of awareness of history is necessary with period literature. It’s a bit of a hassle to ponder lessons for today from studying the past … but that’s the whole point of history, right?

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What I liked about it:

The most important thing I picked up from the book this time around was a better understanding of fascism. While reading this book, I simultaneously did on-line searches for definitions, examples, and warning flags regarding fascism. I looked at articles from the right and the left to be fair and to try to answer a question that deeply puzzled me. How is that both the right and the left can accuse each other of being fascist?

Was fascism a creation of the right or left? Is it secular or religious? The simple answer is … both. But of course to understand it, you have to dig deeper than that.

Most of the articles I read put fascism in the conservative political camp because of the authoritarian approach to policy. Authoritarianism is a predominant characteristic of conservative culture and politics. But several conservative articles found that idea ludicrous because fascism requires loyalty to a collective, and collectives are predominantly from liberal culture and politics, i.e. the government. Since conservatives generally hate the government, how could they possibly buy into a collective ideology?

Well, there is more than one kind of collective. For example, nationalism. Nationalism should never be mistaken for patriotism. Patriotism is support for one’s country. But nationalism is an extreme form of patriotism that usually exhorts the superiority of one nation above all others. Did you catch that very important word that defines the differences? Extreme. It’s okay to be proud of your origins and support your country. But there is a tipping point when love of country becomes nationalism, where globalism no longer matters and one nation’s interests come at the expense of others. When that happens, the nation becomes the collective … the party … the authority. Even without a big government, collectivism can exist in the form of a republic, a religious organization, a social organization, or a business organization. Collectivism simply means “group priority”. So, contrary to some of the arguments I’ve seen otherwise, it IS possible for a conservative culture that disavows “big government” to buy into a different kind of collective dogma. Combine that with authoritarian tendencies, push them into the extreme camp, and you have the perfect storm for fascism. Whether you agree or disagree, this why most sociologists consider fascism to be conservative, even though the world’s first taste of fascism did come from secular, socialist governments.

This might be a difficult concept to grasp because it does straddle the fence in terms of collectives. But it’s important to understand the role that authoritarianism plays in making fascism what it is.

Both conservative and liberal cultures name the same warning signs when it comes to fascism (suppression of freedom of speech, suppression of freedom of the press, dehumanization of a chosen subgroup of people, etc.)Each side has similar arguments that accuse the other of being fascist, but for different reasons. For example, conservatives may point to abortion rights as dehumanization because a fetus is not valued as equally as the mother. Liberals might point to defunding of public welfare projects or anti-immigration policies as dehumanizing because of how the lives of the poor or of a particular religious sect are not as valued as the rich or religious majority. Regardless of whether those definitions of dehumanization are valid or not, both camps are in agreement that dehumanization is bad. In both cases, the “evil” collective that enforces the laws is the government. But whether the government is big or small, religious or secular, it is the absolutism of authority that leads to dictatorship and totalitarianism.

Therefore, it’s important to understand this is a book that the right will attempt to use against the left. And the left will attempt to use it against the right. Because Orwell’s examples of authoritarianism are sometimes similar to, but sometimes vastly different from, what we’re experiencing in today’s world.

This is a book that rebukes the removal of religion from human culture while at the same time condemning the indoctrination of children.

In Orwell’s day, there was a fear of shortages on consumer goods because of communist and socialist government-controlled production. Today we fear unregulated capitalism that not only floods the world with consumer goods, but takes a toll on our environment, permits discrimination, displaces workers, and takes advantage of people for profit.

Orwell clearly disliked having to trade his Imperial measurements and familiar, old-fashioned words for metrics and politically correct rephrasing. But that mindset ignores the fact that Imperial measurements and words are called “imperial” for a reason — one universal standard is easier for business, math, and dictionaries. Yet new words enter living languages every day with new technology and trade. It’s just how living languages work. The only unchanging language is a dead one. The only unchanging civilization is a dead one. Mark Twain once said, “The radical of one century is the conservative of the next. The radical invents the views. When he has worn them out, the conservative adopts them.” I think this is true, except I would change it to say the radical of today is the conservative of tomorrow … because if we’re comfortable with the world we’ve built for ourselves, we don’t want to see someone else change it. Change is scary, even if progress is a good thing. (And in terms of human history overall, most of us would say humanity has changed for the better when we compare our lives today with what they had 100 years ago, 500 years ago, a thousand years ago, and so on.)

So, a sense of what was happening at the time that Orwell wrote this book is essential to understanding why it’s not the left or right arguments that matter. Try not to get stuck in the details of labeling which “side” of modern arguments he’s on. It also helps to acknowledge that Orwell himself had his preferred world view and things he didn’t want to see change in the name of progress. But the main target of Orwell’s criticism and anger, the thing which he brilliantly attacked in this masterpiece, was and always will be totalitarianism.

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Totalitarianism can exist on the right or the left, conservative or liberal. Totalitarianism is what Orwell reminds us to pay attention to regardless of what individual arguments are about. And he does that best through language because when you remove words and suppress language and freedom of communication, you perpetuate ignorance. When you confuse someone’s language, you confuse their ability to think in abstract terms and distance them from their cultural heritage.

Here he gives us the government of Oceania. Big Brother is the father figure that Winston and his peers are to look to for guidance and justice. Big Brother’s not a real person … or maybe he is. Or maybe he changes. The details don’t matter. Big Brother is ageless, eternal, powerful. Big Brother perpetuates war with varying enemies to keep the population of Oceania productive, fatigued, and compliant. They celebrate hate on a daily basis; it’s required to know who their enemies are (since that often changes) and maintain loyalty to the party.

Winston, the story’s protagonist, works at the Ministry of Truth. The sole purpose of the Ministry of Truth is to fabricate propaganda for the party in the daily news and every other printed text in existence. They knowingly rewrite history so that they always come out victorious. But they no longer have a sense of the past because the only thing that matters is blind obedience in the present … and a sort of blind faith toward empty promises about future victories. Winston spends more time erasing the truth than printing it. “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It is their final, most essential command.”

They talk in doublespeak saying things like, “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” To understand these concepts, you have to think in terms of dichotomy because one concept is used to rationalize its opposing principle. I could write an essay on these three statements alone, but if you’ve ever experienced someone punishing you out of “love” that’s the gist of how this works. It’s otherwise known as “gas-lighting” and is a psychologically abusive tactic often used by narcissists to control their partners. In fact the place where political prisoners are tortured is called the Ministry of Love because they equate coercion toward the one and only correct path with an act of compassion.

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They invade privacy, spying on every aspect of your life … judging acts (and thoughts, so don’t talk in your sleep!) as moral or immoral according to their party ideology. Society is based on class divisions according to party loyalty (a.k.a. cronyism). And relationships are reduced to arrangements for procreation, rearing of the next generation to be indoctrinated in party politics, and shallow love affairs held in secret (which are punishable by torture and death because meetings, public or private, are automatically suspect for conspiratorial opportunities). The elements of human existence that most people would cherish are deliberately removed by the party, and they don’t care who knows this because the fear that knowledge produces gives them leverage.

They are absolute, invincible, and forever … just like their patron. They are so sure of their ability to control the masses with fear and hate that when they spot potential dissidents, they bait them with rumors and books from an organization that may or may not be a real group of freedom fighters. Caught in the trap, the dissidents are broken and corrected back into party alignment through means of isolation and torture. Then they’re sent back to their assigned work, until the party has no further use for them. Those no longer useful, disappear … from the present and the past. They never existed. Only Big Brother and the party are timeless. That is the way it has always been.

Recommendation:

I copied dozens of page references and quotes to include in this review, but there simply isn’t time or space to expand on them. So, I will end with this final thought.

You cannot read this book without doubting your own sanity a few times. You can’t read it without thinking of Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s USSR, or any of the other experiments in totalitarian nationalism that crept across the world following the Great Depression … that still exist in some parts of the world today. Nor can you read this book without seeing parallels in current events as totalitarianism and nationalism rear their ugly heads again looking for scapegoats to blame for the world’s problems … looking for excuses to start more wars in order to feel more in control.

Totalitarianism is a regression, no matter what party backs it. It hearkens back to the days of monarchy rule without representation of the people. Representation of a diverse and democratic people is crucial to preventing totalitarian power grabs. And we must be ever-watchful of the language we use to discuss propaganda and fake news, history and ideology, loyalty and patriotism, us and them. If we don’t call out lies when we see them, if we don’t speak up while we are free to do so, if we don’t listen when someone’s human rights are oppressed … when we reject compassion and empathy for the sake of profit, privilege, or power … when we let fear, hatred, and isolation reign … democracy and freedom go down the “memory hole” toward incineration. This is Orwell’s wake-up call to never allow totalitarianism to take over the world again.