Magical Books

For this week’s Lens Artist challenge, Ann-Christine asks us to show what we find magical. My answer: Books.

What an astonishing thing a book is….An author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head….A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.
~ Carl Sagan

A hardcover book, opened on a marble table, with a leather bookmark, against a blue-green wall. There's a ceramic pot of blue and white flowers, a stone containing white and purple crystals, and a little owl sculpture with large eyes.A stack of hardcover books on a blue cloth, with a dried white rose in a glass dish and some rose buds and leaves on the top bookPosted in response to Lens Artists Photo Challenge #63: Magical, with thanks to Ann-Christine for posting this week’s challenge.




Pattern Power: Coincidence in Reality and Fiction

A blue leather purse that resembles a face, with grommet eyes and a zipper mouth. Text: Something for Sunday; September 15, 2019; Pwttern PowerThe blue purse in the image belongs to a friend of mine. Can you see why I wanted to take its picture? It’s got a face! That face represents two separate things about how people deal with coincidence, in reality and in fiction.

How do people handle coincidence in reality? All too well, I’m afraid. The human brain is an extremely powerful pattern detector. This enables us to perceive things under extreme conditions, which is very useful. However, when you crank that ability up too far, you reach the point where you see meaningful patterns even when they aren’t there, something called pareidolia. It’s pareidolia that leads you to see a face when you look at the blue purse. One of the patterns we are especially good at seeing is a face. It doesn’t take much to trigger face recognition; this is behind the original use of emoticons in text, where it just takes a colon and a parenthesis to get us to see a smile.  🙂  I find this fascinating, and have written about it before. Our amazing ability to see and recognize faces is a topic of a lot of interest among cognitive scientists, who study how face perception works and how it sometimes goes wrong. You can learn more about it in this video.

More generally, this means we have a tendency to believe in the patterns we perceive, even when they are not real. Just because two things happen together (co-incidence) doesn’t necessarily mean there is any real connection between them. Random coincidences happen all the time. We don’t like to believe that, though.

Animated character from The Incredibles saying, "Coincidence? I think NOT!"My message for dealing with patterns in real life is to be skeptical about them. Otherwise, you’re like the man who plugged in his shaver at the exact moment that all the power went out on the Eastern seaboard, and is now convinced he caused the blackout. Or the misguided parent who notices that a child was diagnosed with autism a couple of months after getting a vaccination. Children are (or should be) getting lots of vaccinations during their first few years, and that’s also the time when autism is generally diagnosed. The two events simply happen together (co-incidence), but one does not cause the other.

In fiction, though, things are different. One of the big differences between stories and real life is that stories are supposed to make sense. Everything needs to be linked together by chains of cause and effect. In his book on writing, Damn Fine Story, Chuck Wendig says refers to this as echoes. Important events should reverberate back and forth throughout the story, so that they feel fitting and inevitable when they finally happen. Otherwise, you are in danger of creating a Deus ex Machina, where something waves a wand and solves all the problems without a good reason. This can sometimes be pulled off successfully, but generally it is death to a satisfying conclusion. It’s okay to use coincidence to get a story started (the main character opens the wrong door at the wrong time, and sees something they were not supposed to see). It can also work for making the character’s problems worse (they left their diary where it’s found by the plumber, who turns out to be a bad guy). However, using it to solve the character’s problem at the end is almost always a bad idea (when running from a murderous assailant, they open a random door and stumble across a stash of guns and ammo that has no reason to be there).

Here’s an example. I remember staying up late as a teenager reading The Andromeda Strain by Michael Chrichton, caught up in the drama and terror of a deadly extraterrestrial microbe that killed people in minutes. Chapter after chapter, page after page, heroic people fought desperately to stop the lethal invasion. Then, in the last pages, we learn that the microbe has now mutated into a form that no longer threatens anyone. Problem solved! This felt like cheating to me. If nobody had done anything in response to the initial threat, it would have just disappeared on its own. Why would it just happen to evolve into something harmless? Why would every bit that was dangerous just … disappear? I couldn’t see a reason for the victory at the end, so it didn’t satisfy me. A gripping, fascinating tale fizzled out at the end.

To put this all together: We humans are always looking for patterns. In real life, this can lead us to believe in things that aren’t real. On the other hand, we know a story isn’t real, but if it doesn’t satisfy that pattern hunger we again get frustrated. As a writer, I need to keep this in mind. My readers can’t turn real life off, but they can certainly quit reading my book if I don’t give them a pattern that works.

Can you think of stories with endings that didn’t satisfy you? Did they rely too much on coincidence?

Sky Light

This week, Patti challenges the Lens Artists to post photos with silhouettes. I love this topic! I take a lot of pictures of the sky, and this often includes dark things silhouetted against a bright sky. Here are a few of my favorite silhouette photos.

First: Three images with sunsets

One was taken from the marina at Sackets Harbor. I love this image so much, I used one like it for my Twitter header.

Sunset over water, with rocks, trees, and weeds in the foreground in silhouetteOne was taken nearby, at the 1812 battlefield, as some young people sat on the stone wall watching the sun go down.

Sunset over water, with the silhouettes of four young people in the foregroundOne was taken at the Port of Rochester, when we were staying at the marina there.

Brilliant sunset reflected in the water, surrounded by silhouettes of sailboatsNext: two images with stormy skies

One has a leafless winter tree, and a tiny patch of blue showing through the gray clouds.

A leafless tree silhouetted against a stormy skyOne has a bird silhouetted against those stormy clouds.

Stormy gray clouds, with a bird flying overheadFinally: one with blue sky and clouds and a power pole with a tangle of wires

I was struck by the complexity of the cabling on this pole.

A view of a power pole with many cables at many levels, silhouetted against a partly cloudy skyPosted in response to Lens Artists Photo Challenge #62: Silhouettes, with thanks to Patti for posting this week’s challenge.

Back on the Horse: Returning to Writing

A purple-blue statue of a rearing horse against tree leaves. Text: Something for Sunday; September 8, 2019; Back on the HorseThere’s an old saying that when you fall off a horse, you need to get right back on. The longer you wait, the harder it will be to overcome that failure, and you may never get back on again. This post is about my experience with falling off a metaphorical horse, and getting back on. (ALSO: there’s a note at the end of this post about the particular horse in the photo.)

There’s a lot of advice around about improving productivity by changing how you define your tasks, by breaking tasks down, or by balancing work and writing. You can even use procrastination to be more productive. This is all great advice, and I recommend you check it out to see if it works for you. There are also those who insist that if you’re going to call yourself a writer, You Must Write Every Day. One thing I firmly believe, however, is that there are no one-size-fits-all rules that all writers must obey (I wrote a whole post about that a while ago). Over the years that I’ve been a writer, I’ve tried a bunch of ideas to see what works for me. Ironically, one that’s been pretty useful is to write every day. (Remember, this is about what works for me, not for anyone else. Your mileage may vary.)

About a year ago, I set myself a goal to at least touch the current work in progress every day. It might just be spending five minutes reading over a paragraph or two and tweak some words. It might be thinking about how to do something and making a few notes. Of course, it might also be really digging in and spending hours churning out words. Anything would count. With this system, if I wasn’t going to do today’s little bit, I had to justify it to myself. Otherwise, I would do something today, and tomorrow something more, and it all worked.

If I’ve missed a few days in a row, though, it got harder and harder to get back to it. The old saying about the horse proved true! I start to think I need a reason to write today, instead of a reason not to write. I haven’t written anything in days, or weeks, so why start now? It feels like starting up again is going to be a massive effort.

Strong man struggling to write with a bar that has many heavy weights on the other end. Text: How it feels to write after a long timeNot too long ago, that was me. My job was winding down to retirement, with a slew of things that had to be done and all my routines thrown off. Then I sunk my creative forces into other outlets: this weekly blog post, for one thing, and a role-playing game I was designing. I’ve got solid black marks in my calendar from June 16 to August 10. I got discouraged, wondering if I would ever finish the book. I wanted to write, so why was I not writing? I experienced looming dread over how hard it was going to be to climb back on that horse. The longer I stayed away the higher the saddle seemed, and the more impossible it felt. A recent blog post from the 10 Minute Novelists blog documents this problem, and describes one useful approach to overcoming it.

Finally, one day, I broke through. I dusted off the daily planner I had been using to keep my work life organized, picked the first day of an upcoming week, and put “Writing” down as an item on my to-do list. When that day came I took a deep breath, opened the document, and got back to it. Of course, it wasn’t as hard I had expected, and after that first day it’s gone swimmingly. I’ve only missed a handful of days in the last month, and expect to keep going with the little-bit-a-day plan for the foreseeable future. I’m still using the planner, and “Writing” is a to-do item on every day of every week.

So this is what works for me. I have no fixed word count or minute count to achieve each day. I just need to touch the work, to keep it warm, so that tomorrow it’s easy to do a little bit, and the next day, and the day after that. As long as I keep moving, I know I’ll eventually get there.

Here’s the bit I promised about the horse. Back in 2001, local artists around Rochester, NY joined in a community project called Horses On Parade, creating lovely and fanciful life-sized fiberglass horses to be placed all around the town. This one is called the Horse of a Different Color. It uses a color-shifting paint that looks different depending on how the light hits it. It stands today outside the Norman Howard School, a local institution dedicated to the education of students whose needs that are not met in traditional school settings. The horse reminds us that people may look different, but in the right light each of us can shine.

What are some techniques that help you stay on track to reach your goals?

Book Quest: A Bookshelf Scavenger Hunt

Some shelves with books. Text: Something for Sunday; September 1, 2019; Book QuestI follow a blog called the Secret Library Book Blog, and this week they posted a challenge: the Bookshelf Scavenger Hunt, which they traced back to another site called the Book Nut (which I now follow: thanks!). The challenge is to find books on your own book shelf that fit 20 categories. Some of my answers are a bit of a stretch, but here’s what I found on my own shelves. My collection slews heavily toward science fiction and fantasy, so that’s most of what you see here.

1. An author or title with a Z in it.
Mechanical Failure by Joe Zieja. Funny science fiction.

Cover of "Mechanical Failure" by Joe Zieja2. A classic
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. Atmospheric and creepy, and my all-time favorite opening line.

Cover of "Rebecca" by Daphne du Maurier3. A book with a key on it
Dave Barry in Cyberspace. This is a stretch, but I didn’t have any books with actual door keys. This collection of funny essays about computers has a keyboard on the cover.

Cover of "Dave Barry in Cyberspace" by Dave Barry4. Something on your bookshelf that’s not a book
One of the many fish in my collection, swimming among my books.

A carved wooden fish5. The oldest book on your shelf
I picked two answers here. Iceworld by Hal Clement is my oldest physical volume (held together with a rubber band). My parents owned this copy from when it was new, in 1953, and I inherited it. My copy of The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie is only a couple of decades old, but the book’s copyright is 1922, making it the oldest one by that metric.

Two book covers. "Iceworld" by Hal Clement and "The Secret Adversary" by Agatha Christie6. A book with a woman on it
Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly. I have lots of books with women on the cover, but this one is all about bringing women front-and-center.

Cover of "Hidden Figures" by Margot Lee Shetterly7. A book with an animal on it
Watership Down by Richard Adams. The richly imagined life of rabbits.

Cover of "Watership Down" by Richard Adams8. A book with a male protagonist
There are so, so many books I could have picked for this, but I chose Unbound by Jim C. Hines. There is an epic magical battle between good and evil, but there is more. Isaac, the protagonist, deals with issues of depression, and his friends try to understand and help him. I love that the author gave equal weight to both the inner and the outer struggles.

Cover of "Unbound" by Jim C. Hines9. A book with only words on the cover
Just My Type by Simon Garfield is a delightful look at fonts and type faces.

Cover of "Just My Type" by Simon Garfield10. A book with illustrations in it
Dungeon Crawlin’ Fools by Rich Burlew is the first in a series of print version of Burlew’s wonderful comic about self-aware characters in a Dungeons and Dragons world, the Order of the Stick.

Cover of "Dungeon Crawlin' Fools" by Rich Burlew11. A book with gold lettering
Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, they book on which the TV miniseries is based. Just having fun with demons, angels, and the end of the world.

Cover of "Good Omens" by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett12. A diary, true or fictional
I couldn’t find any books that could be described as diaries, so I took a picture of one of the journals I use to plot out new stories. It includes dated entries in which I ramble on about my thoughts, which is as close as I could get.

A green-and-black composition notebook13. A book written by an author with a common surname (like Smith)
Tau Zero by Poul Anderson. According to Google, Anderson is the 11th most common name in America, so I think this one counts. It’s an intriguing exploration of life in a relativistic universe.

Cover of "Tau Zero" by Poul Anderson14. A favorite childhood book
The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien. I no longer own any books I myself read as a child, but this is one I read to my children and loved.

Cover of "The Hobbit" by J. R. R. Tolkein15. A book that takes place in the earliest time period
I decided not to use anything where the time period is uncertain or where the location is fictional, such as a different world. Doomsday Book by Connie Willis because much of it takes place in our real world in the 14th century, during the Black Plague. My copy is signed by the author!

Cover of "Doomsday Book" by Connie Willis16. A hardcover book with no dust jacket
I couldn’t resist choosing Quantitative Research for the Behavioral Sciences by Celia Reaves. Yes, that’s me. I published this college textbook back in 1991, and though it never really took off it was modestly successful for a few years.

Cover of "Quantitative Research for the Behavioral Sciences" by Celia Reaves17. A teal or turquoise colored book
The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke. Classic science fiction.

Cover of "The Fountains of Paradise" by Arthur C. Clarke18. A book with stars on the cover
Death by Black Hole presents a series of essays on all matters astronomical written by Neil deGrasse Tyson for Natural History magazine. Another copy signed by the author!

Cover of "Death by Black Hole" by Neil deGrasse Tyson19. A non-YA book
Most of my books are not for Young Adults, so I had lots of choices here. I picked M is for Malice, one of the alphabet murder mysteries by Sue Grafton, partly because the big M on the cover seems to mark it as Mature!

Cover of "M is for Malice" by Sue Grafton20. A book with a beautiful cover
Far Horizons is a collection of science fiction/fantasy stories from 1999, edited by Robert Silverberg. The cover has a surreal painting of flying dolphins and is unusual in that the only words on the cover are the title: no author or editor, no publisher, no blurbs.

Cover of "Far Horizons" edited by Robert SilverbergSo that’s my scavenger hunt. It was a lot of fun to do! By the way, the shelves in the image at the top of this blog were designed and built by my husband, and allow me to fit hundreds of paperback books into a closet. Brilliant!

Try the challenge yourself. I invite you to check out your own bookshelf and see what you can find!

Water and Stone

The arch of a stone bridge over a river reflects in the water to make a circleA few months ago I took a river cruise down the Genesee River in Rochester, NY. Along the way I snapped this image of one of the stone bridges over the water. I was intrigued by how the arch of the bridge was reflected in the water to make a circular frame for the misty view upriver. It was a gray and rainy day, but still beautiful!

More recently, I saw a pile of stones being used to hold back some of the erosion due to the high water levels in Lake Ontario this year. There were gaps in the stones, and through the gaps you could see the water of the lake. Here’s one of the pictures I took.

A sliver of lake water viewed through a pile of bouldersI seem to have an interest in looking at vistas of water, framed by stone–large and small.

Posted in response to Lens Artists Photo Challenge #60: Frame, with thanks to Amy for posting this week’s challenge.

Beat the Clock: Stories of Time Travel

Image of a clock with three separate minute hands. Text: Something for Sunday; August 25, 2019; Beat the ClockWe humans do love our time travel stories. People often point to The Time Machine by H. G. Wells as the start of the genre, but according to Wikipedia that’s not only far from the first time travel story, it’s not even the first time travel story written by H. G. Wells. James Gleick wrote a delightful book about time travel in science and fiction, and National Geographic has an article about our love affair with the concept. Time travel is a well-known trope, cropping up again and again in various universes and franchises: the Marvel cinematic universe, Harry Potter, Star Trek, maybe even Star Wars. And, of course, Doctor Who, a Time Lord known for his articulate explanation of the nature of time.

Animated image of the 10th Doctor Who describing "a big ball of timey wimey...stuff."Some of my favorite books are time travel stories. I could list dozens of them, but here are my top five (in the order of their publication):

  • Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, by Douglas Adams, where time travel creates and resolves a number of paradoxes and saves humanity
  • Replay, by Ken Grimwood, in which a man dies and wakes up again as his younger self, to live his life over and over
  • The Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis, one of a series of marvelous books she set in a universe where historians explore the past directly
  • Night Watch, by Terry Pratchett, where a very down-to-earth policeman meets his younger self in the delightful fantasy of Discworld
  • The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger, where time travel drives the emotional power of the story

There are also many time-travel movies I’ve loved, including these (in the order they were released):

  • Terminator 2: Judgment Day, my pick for the best of the Terminator movies, where the goal is to preserve humanity from a future robot uprising
  • Back to the Future, the first of a three-movie series in which Marty McFly tries to find the best timeline for himself, his family, and his town
  • Frequency, in which the hero uses an accidental link through time to try to save his father’s life, and then untangle the consequences
  • Looper, where the mob uses time travel to orchestrate untraceable hits, and the hit man finds himself as his next target
  • Interstellar, which has an interesting alien vision of time, and some really cool robots

Then there’s this fascinating indie film, The History of Time Travel, free on Amazon Prime video, which I’ve watched several times now to figure it all out:

So with all this love I have for time travel, I guess it’s inevitable that there’s an element of time travel in my own book. It’s not time travel of the type found in these stories, though. It’s about two realms of reality where the directions of time are perpendicular. People jump from our world to another and return to our own world at the same moment they left. Decades of experienced time are compressed into seconds. This has particular consequences for people who die in the alternate world, and therefore die here in that one moment. But if someone else later travels to the other world, will they find the person there still alive? And, if so, can they save that person’s life? Would they then be alive back here in our world? This is the kind of question I’ve had to struggle with as I create this book. It’s been a challenge and a lot of fun to work through it all, but there are times I agree with Chief O’Brien of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine when I say:

Two versions of Chief O'Brien of Star Trek: DS9 talking to each other. Text: "I hate temporal mechanics."Do you enjoy time travel and time paradoxes in your fiction? What are your favorite time travel stories?