Thursday, July 31, 2014

Why Readers, Scientifically, are People, Too

A few weeks ago my dear sister shared an article titled "Why Readers, Scientifically, Are The Best People To Fall In Love With." Improper title capitalization rules and superfluous prepositions aside, I take issue with the article. What would one expect, coming from Elite Daily, a site, I must admit, I hadn't stumbled across before but calls itself "the voice of Generation Y." Isn't that a perfect title for a Gen Y site? Elite. Yes, yes you are. Maybe that's my problem. As a Gen Xer, I'm an old fart, skeptical of everything.

Even myself. And I'm also not all that special. I'm just a person with an opinion and about three pounds of neurons in my skull, but I do like to think.

I learned the habit of asking questions of EVERYTHING in undergrad at Kansas State University, probably even before that. Richard Fogg, if you're out there, your lab section of Psych 350: Experimental Methods in Psychology way back in the fall of 1995 was brilliant. Thanks for teaching me true inquiry, critical thinking, and objectivity--and the cool lesson about what happens to a person when they come to the emergency room on a heroin overdose from your days in LA. That was awesome.

But I digress. A little.

I don't believe, and never will, that reading makes a person more empathic. That would be a causal relationship, one the author of the article implies with lines like "readers are proven to be nicer and smarter than the average human, and maybe the only people worth falling in love with on this shallow hell on earth." Wow.

While readers may be smarter and nicer than the average human (14 + years in education make me question both of those claims), I do not believe for an instant, not one millisecond, reading makes a person smarter or, and here's the most important disbelief, nicer than anyone else. There's simply a correlation between reading and empathy, reading and intelligence, reading and "theory of mind"  (the ability to hold opinions, beliefs and interests apart from one's own). I've known plenty of kids who could strip a 1968 Chevy Camaro and rebuild it who couldn't read all that well. How, exactly, are we defining intelligence?

Perhaps empathic, intelligent, and "mindful" people simply are drawn to reading. Perhaps.

But there's more. The author of "Why Readers...," Lauren Martin, cites another study which suggests kids who have more stories read to them have better theories of mind. I have no doubt--but using the word "prove" as in "results that prove the more stories children have read to them, the keener their [mindfulness]" really trips my critical analysis trigger. Maybe the interaction with people is the key, the common factors--good, healthy relationships with caregivers or other adults doing the reading--is the real seed of mindfulness and empathy. Show me a study suggesting a robot can read books to kids and those kids are more mindful than anyone else... well, I guess we're doing a whole lot of supposing without real results and a whole slew of ethical concerns. I haven't read the original studies, but these seem more correlative (collecting data and finding relationships) than causal (actual, controlled studies).

Are readers "the best people to fall in love with"? I don't know. But empathic people are nice. Mindful people are very nice. I'm in love with a woman who is empathic, mindful, and intelligent. She's nice. And while she reads ALL THE TIME I don't know that either of us have finished more than a book or two in the time we've known each other.

I believe reading is very important--Martin cites several other studies "proving" readers are the only worthwhile people on the planet--but it is not the only thing which creates a human. Reading is not the only factor which contributes to intelligence, empathy, and mindfulness.

And yes... this is coming from a guy who writes. And writers need readers. Did I just alienate all of you?


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

I Planned to Discuss Perserverance, but I Gave Up

My kids give up too easily. I'm not sure if it's their generation's epidemic or anything, but I notice it with some of the kids at school, too. The district where I work even had a school improvement plan a year or so ago focused on trying to build perseverance in our students.

We gave up. I wonder what that says...

Seriously, though, kids raised on the world at the click of a mouse quit easily. For example (I'm always armed with them): my ten-year-old and video games. I can imagine the groans. "Video games? Really? I came here for a reasonable discussion about an important topic." Work with me. Video games have been a significant part of our modern tapestry, and love them or leave them, they aren't going anywhere. Owen loves to play games. He spends a quite possibly unreasonable amount of time in front of his computer, a television, or his 3DS. Yes, he plays plenty of games. Most modern games have built in learning curves to keep kids playing at a relatively simply level until they're really good. It's one of the major advances behind the scenes--face it, graphics and sound take all the glory, but a game's artificial intelligence has taken big strides.

Where Owen stumbles, however, is when he attempts anything with a lengthy quest or story or--Zeus forbid--a retro game. He wants to love The Legend of Zelda, but it's hard. He's started several games and given in when the going is tough from "start."

Okay, I'm being a bit harsh. I remember the hours Owen spent trying to conquer various shortcuts on Mario Kart Wii... the kid will stick with something, sometimes. But you go back a little further, Zelda, Mega Man, even Earthworm Jim or Ghouls and Ghosts for Sega Genesis, and he's done. And it isn't just Owen. I do see it at school, as both a teacher and a counselor. Kids give up when any task is too hard. Instead of trying again. And again. And again.

Maybe our tools, like the AI on those new video games, are just too powerful. Why work hard when a machine will do the heavy lifting? Why think and muddle through a problem when Google can probably cough up 10,000 solutions within a fraction of a second?

What I want here is good, old-fashioned stubbornness. I crave the kind of tenacity which kept me and my buddies up all night, stumbling through Hyrule's dark dungeons without the benefit of dozens of online walk-throughs and wikis. Anyone of my generation who played the original Metal Gear on NES will remember how damn hard it was just to get Snake to the first building without dying.

As a writer, perseverance has been my greatest ally. I set out to qualify for active status in the Horror Writers Association about seven years ago. It took a few years to sell my first professional rate piece, and this summer, I've been able to finally make that third qualifying sale. Seven years. Technology has made "success" as a writer far to easy to achieve. Someone turns down your story? Simply self-publish through the miracle of ebooks or the InterwebTM. But none of these quick fixes will ever help a writer hone his or her craft. Perseverance is priceless.

I want my kids to stick with difficult tasks. I want them to ask tough questions and solve challenging problems. I want them to never, ever quit. And I'll work all the rest of my days to make sure they know the value of perseverance. 

Monday, June 9, 2014

The Quiet One

This is kinda-sorta an "author's notes" post but without the spoilers. After a few months of quiet, I have a flurry of writing news. Horror d'oeurves features my flash piece, "Slips of Yew," a title I lifted from Shakespeare's "Scottish play." Okay, Macbeth. I guess it isn't bad luck to reference Macbeth in writing, just theater. Or is it theatre?

When I used to teach Macbeth, I'd show the rather grim and bloody Roman Polanski version. Yes, some moments are silly (e.g., a sleepwalking (in the nude) Lady Macbeth). Thanks for that, executive producer Hugh Hefner. Like anyone slept in the buff in a drafty Scottish castle, but I digress (again). The third of three witches in the film was younger than the others and Polanski/his writers chose to make her mute and assign her lines to the other two. "Slips of Yew" was born as I imagined her voice.

Imagine the excitement when I warned a room full of high school seniors (mostly boys) that we'd see nudity when I showed them the "something wicked this way comes" scene. Now imagine the shock and revulsion when the nudity was a cave full of old hags. Awesome. Those were the days...

Anyway, "Slips of Yew" to Horror d'ouerves marks my third official professional sale (5 cents a word or better)--fourth overall if you count a contest I won a few years ago. Unfortunately, it, added to my other professional sales, runs 1,000 words short of the ascribed 7500 word count/3 pieces threshold to be an active member of the HWA. So be it. I'll keep writing. Thanks to editor Shane Staley for picking up my little bit of darkness.

There's more, too, like "Lucky Numbers" in Dark Moon Digest #16. What's the skinny behind "Lucky Numbers"? Let's just say it might not be a good idea to cast a mask of your recently deceased loved one (post burial, even). And because everyone loves cover art:

The issue isn't officially out yet, but will be soon. Speaking of soon... I'm up at Every Day Fiction again on Wednesday. More soon.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Author's Notes: "The Summer I Fell in Love"

So... May has come and gone without a single blog post. Bad writer.

But June brings a few new publications, including "The Summer I Fell in Love" in Niteblade #28. I've had a few other stories in Niteblade in the past, including "Bait Worms" way back in Niteblade #6... nearly six years ago.

"The Summer I Fell in Love" is a personal favorite of mine, originally written for an anthology of southern zombie tales. Yes, I wrote the "z" word. Dirty, dirty "z" word. Only this story is different. (We--meaning writers--all say that, don't we?)

Spoilers ahead. Please Read "The Summer I Fell in Love" before moving forward (if you are so inclined).


Still here?

My story is more about a small town's hate and the irrational ends to which people will go in the face of horrible situations thank the "z" word. The narrator, a teenage girl, falls in love with another girl. Some of the details, lipstick tasting of soap, are fragments from my own memory. I dated a girl whose lipstick tasted like soap, but I was a teenage boy. My small town accepted such things (boys and girls together--not the soap-flavored lipstick). Fictional Connelly, somewhat modeled after my own as every other town I imagine, does not accept two girls falling in love.

When things turn sour, when the zombies show up, the town's angry voices need a target. Julie, the narrator's first love, is an outsider, not from "'round here" and therefore an easy mark. The memories and feelings of falling in love are there, even if the words and point of view aren't mine. The narrator's ache is my own.

This story earned one of my favorite titles--a title even more meaningful because the story is easily about the year of the zombie outbreak, the undead plague. But for the narrator, the real story was Julie--falling in love and Julie's sad fate at the hands of the real monsters. It will always be "the summer I fell in love."

I said there would be spoilers, didn't I?

Thanks for reading and thanks to editor Rhonda Parrish for another chance to have my words read. Please consider supporting Niteblade so they can continue to share fiction with the world. You'll find a "donate" button the right side of the site (scroll down a bit).

Have a beautiful summer.  I hope it brings you much love but none of the "z" word.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Why All the Facelifting?

Some people out in the world wide web may have noticed some new clothes on old books, including a name change for my novel, Loathsome, Dark, and Deep. Yes, I took it to the courthouse, filled out the appropriate paperwork, and now it has a new name: The Forest of Ruined Men. Why? It's a bit more marketable. I think.

Okay. I'm not a marketing genius. I'm not even a writing genius, but I write. And revise. And write some more. And re--well, you gather the general idea. What I know is this: since coming back to writing, all my earnings are going to charity. I used to drop a fair bit in the community pot before, but now all of it--all my sales, Smashwords earnings, KDP sales, etc., goes to help the uninsured of Douglas County receive health care.

This reluctant salesman finds it a whole helluva lot easier to ask folks to spend money if I know that money is going to do something positive. The nickels and dimes for which I begged before mean little to me, but my chosen beneficiary, Health Care Access, can do so much good with my money. Why Health Care Access? Why health care for the uninsured? I thought everyone had insurance now?


Health Care Access does good work here at home. It's a cause in which I believe--and it makes it so much easier to spend time and energy selling books. My nickels and dimes can become diabetes treatment for someone without insurance or the resources to purchase it. My nickels and dimes mean early cancer detection so someone can qualify for state aid and treatment. I believe we have a duty to help everyone access quality health care, and I'm starting in my hometown.

So yes. This is what I'm doing.

And here's more of what I've done to help what I'm doing:

It's like they're a happy family now... a series even... and guess what? I'm laying groundwork for a third "Sons of Chaos" novella. It's going to be a cold one.

And you know what? I'd love it if you bought an ebook or read anything I've written--but sending some love to Health Care Access is beautiful, too, and you don't even need an e-reader.