The Storyteller Reports: Shake Up Your Schema!

I read a fascinating interview in The New York Times two days ago. Gary Marcus is a cognitive psychologist who learned to play the guitar as an adult. He received some thought-provoking questions, and delivered some thought-provoking answers. You can read it here.

I won’t steal too much of his thunder, but I do want to throw in some speculation. I know little about psychology, so if I trip up, feel free to throw some virtual tomatoes.

What does this mean for writers? Let’s think about genres. If you’ve been lucky enough to spend many years writing, you may or not have settled in one genre. If you’re an avid reader, you may settled into reading historical fiction (or Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time). So, after such long experience in one genre (or subject, if you write/read non-fiction), what happens when you try a new one? I wager it’s difficult.

I’m sketchy on the details, but there’s a psychological concept called the schema. Jean Piaget popularized it. Your mind takes the information that your mind takes in, and organizes it. The schema is the way it organizes. Just as we have folders with different categories (and reasons for putting different things in these categories), so our mind has different categories into which it classifies things.

After such long exposure, it might take time for the schemas to shift and get used to new information. Right? The rules for science fiction novels are a little different than literary short stories. You use different words, and even write in a different style, when it comes to French history as opposed to memoirs, or scholarly journals on astrophysics.

It seems clear that adults take more time to get used to new things than kids do, and Gary gets into more detail with that.

What the takeaway is for writers is that diversity is imperative. We can’t just stick with one genre. Those schemas could get so rigid that when something new comes along that we don’t understand, we don’t deal with it as well. I read too much highbrow fiction. I read too much fiction with dark endings, as we’ve talked about in weeks past.

That’s why, right now, I’m reading a non-fiction book about Catholicism. After that, I’m going to finish a reading a YA novel that a friend lent me a couple of weeks ago. Then I’m going to read some Elizabethan poetry. I want to shake up my schemas a little bit.

What about you?

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Hello! I don’t know if you heard, but this blog is moving to a new one. It’ll have all the same weekly features, and news about The Kingdom Trilogy. It will also acknowledge the other projects that I dip my toes in. Check it out here. I’ll post the weekly features on both sites for a while, but before long I’ll make the full transition to the new site.

The Storyteller Reports: Is There Too Much Darkness In Today’s Fiction?

I am pressed for time, so I will speak swiftly. For those of you wondering about the FastPencil edition of The Quest, it’s still rebelling against me. It won’t publish. I’m working on it, but I’m also juggling college coursework.

In the meantime, I want to leave just a thought today. Have you ever gotten the feeling that a lot of modern fiction tends to be grim and violent? I was writing on Friday about why I put down Watchmen in favor of more optimistic literature. Now I’m wondering whether Watchmen and other dark tales have too much power in today’s storytelling landscape.

Look at movies like The Dark KnightThe Road, and A Prophet. They were all critically acclaimed and all full of deadly moral choices. Think about the works of Cormac McCarthy, or Stephen King, or even Brad Thor. Think about The Hunger Games. Think about Twilight, even. The Wall Street Journal uncovers a brutal trend in YA novels that turns my stomach.

We still have our Harry Potters and our Frodo Bagginses. I don’t hear such hopeful works discussed in the same tone. Films like The Help, and books likeHotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, rake in plenty of cash, and people say they love them, but they don’t carry the same weight as The Godfather or a drug addict’s new book.

The message that I am being sent is this: successful, serious fiction needs to be dark. If you want to be successful and seriously considered in your literature, you have to focus on the dark side of humanity. Inspirational stories, or stories with pure good and evil, are lightweight and don’t merit as much esteem.

Am I right?

***

Hello! I don’t know if you heard, but this blog is moving to a new one. It’ll have all the same weekly features, and news about The Kingdom Trilogy. It will also acknowledge the other projects that I dip my toes in. Check it out here. I’ll post the weekly features on both sites for a while, but before long I’ll make the full transition to the new site.

Thanks for reading! Have a wonderful day!

The Storyteller Reports: The Logical Consequences of E-Books

I can’t believe I didn’t see this coming.

Have you heard of Coliloquy? They’re a California-based company who have taken the concept of the e-book and mutated it into an app for interactive fiction. They follow in the footsteps of a similar venture in September called The King of Shreds and Patches. Basically, they let you read a book, and make choices for your character at crucial points. It’s “Choose Your Own Adventure” for the Kindle. What’s new about Coliloquoy is that your choices are recorded by the app and sent to the company to influence future editions.

When I saw these headlines yesterday afternoon, my eyes lit up. My head is only starting to soar. Imagine if this stuff gets popular on the Kindle. The next Great American novel could be interactive.

Oops. Did I just say that out loud? I think I did. Let me repeat it. The next work of literature that could pierce the core of the human condition, and be read and discussed for decades afterward, could be a “Choose Your Own Adventure Book”.

Consider the power is leaves to an author. One of a fictions writer’s greatest powers is fate. What happens to his/her characters says something about how he/she views the world. When the villain falls off an icy cliff because he alienated everyone who might have been with him to lend him a hand, the message is that people who alienate other people are bad. Obviously, we can get more complicated than that, but that’s the idea.

Imagine this principle working in interactive fiction. With more choices come a more sophisticated moral vision. By coming up with multiple plotlines and endings, an author is forced to make more commentary on people and the world; he is forced to broaden his moral scope and ask more questions. This must strengthen the vision of his/her novel- not to mention himself/herself.

If you’re not up for literary fiction, more plotlines will still result in more excitement and more chances to hone your craft. The more you write, the better you get. What could improve your skill better than having to make so many alternate stories make sense?

All it takes is one runaway success to turn this into a legitimate genre. I truly believe somebody is going to take this genre and write a story (erm, stories) that will stun the world. You heard it here. Interactive fiction is going to find a way to become a force in the literary world.

***

Hello! I don’t know if you heard, but this blog is moving to a new one. It’ll have all the same weekly features, and news about The Kingdom Trilogy. It will also acknowledge the other projects that I dip my toes in. Check it out here. I’ll post the weekly features on both sites for a while, but before long I’ll make the full transition to the new site.

Thanks for reading! Have a wonderful day!

The Storyteller Reports: Literary Fiction As A Genre

RANT OF THE WEEK: Is Literary Fiction A Genre?

According to BooksLive, and to absolutely nobody’s surprise, there is some controversy as to whether crime books constitute good literature. I’ll let them quote the talking heads. In the meantime, I want to ask some questions.

Isn’t The Brothers Karamazov a crime novel? Isn’t it one of the great literary masterpieces of Western civilization? Darn right it is. Isn’t it obvious, then, that you can have a crime novel that is literary? Why are there people condemning entire genres? All good fiction should impact us. The impact might be sadness, excitement, or joy, but there must be an impact. By literary fiction, we mean books that seek to impact readers with ideas, as well as sensations.

Genre should not be the focus, but individual books. Crime novels, thrillers, horror stories, historical romances and all the other genres are settings in which literary fiction can take place- or an entertaining story. It doesn’t provide as much meat for study, but there’s no reason to condemn it.

Take a chill pill.

The Storyteller Reports: Who Runs Wattpad?

RANT OF THE WEEK: Who Uses Wattpad?

Have you ever fantasized about putting a movie rating on your writing?

That’s just one dream come true that intrigues me about Wattpad.com. It’s been around since 2006; I just found out about it yesterday from David Gaughran. On this site, you can post any story for free. It can be a rough draft, a chapter, a short story, a novel, or whatever else you want it to be. You give it MPAA ratings. You can even list your ideal cast of celebrities to play your characters. Best of all, you can interact with readers through comments. It’s a love child of Smashwords and Facebook.

I just had to take a peek.

At first, everything seemed absolutely perfect. For one thing, the people investing in Wattpad are the same people who invested in Twitter and Tumblr. For another thing, there are millions of people using it- and actively. Some of the most popular stories range into the millions of views (yes, they ripped that off from YouTube). A few of these authors are trying to translate their Wattpad success to self-publishing, like Brittany Geragotelis. I found one self-publisher who used Wattpad to boost sales for what she already published.

I got an account a few hours ago, and so far it has been greatly entertaining. I’ve read some other stories, and uploaded Die By The Sword, a short story also available on Smashwords. A grin slowly shone through as I ransacked iMBD for actors to list in the cast. Isn’t this great?

Wattpad isn’t going away anytime soon. With people like Albert Wenger and David Gaughran throwing in, and Wattpad’s overtures to self-published authors, and its base in mobile technology, it’s going to take a sex scandal to slow this site down.

There’s no question Wattpad will be successful, but to whom it will bestow success is something else entirely.

Wattpad is dominated by YA authors and readers. YA seems to regularly fill the “What’s Hot” list, and all of the blogs and articles I have read do not question this dominance. The “Watty Awards” (Wattpad’s People’s Choice Awards, more or less) are glutted with paranormal romances, historical romances and chick lit. The majority of Wattpad’s users, according to their own statistics, are young girls. Michael Graeme, another blogger, ran into this culture and lived to tell the tale.

Right now, the biggest successes on Wattpad are with YA, and they generally involve teenage angst and kissing. What about stories like mine? Die By The Sword is about as far from YA lit as you can get. I don’t know how well I’m going to do on this site.

If I were you, I’d keep an eye on what happens with Wattpad’s courting of self-published authors. If enough good ones decide to use that system and use it well, we could see a shift in popular genres… or not. Whoever succeeds and gets media attention will be trendsetters for other Wattpad users. If a YA author gets big success, we could see Wattpad become even more of a YA empire, excluding other genres. Without diversification and adaptability, the site might die off as its primary users get older.

The social media part of this could suffer, too, now that I think about it. If everyone who has been publishing on Smashwords and Amazon jumps into Wattpad, and not enough readers follow them, there might wind up being more authors than readers on this site. Right now, there seems to be a lot of interaction between young people writing stories and commenting on others’. Will the authors transition well into this, or will we get a lot of annoying promotions and follow requests like on Twitter? All I can say is I hope the stupid indie authors stay out.

Those are my initial thoughts, but I’m going to keep investigating this site. This might not be the last post you see about this website. What are your thoughts? Am I missing something crucial about all this?

STORYTELLER OF THE WEEK

You know what? Instead of posting about some Dead White European Male, how about you go see what’s out there on Wattpad?

The Storyteller Reports: For Once I Don’t Have Anything To Complain About

For those of you who’ve seen one of my “Rants of the Week”, you know I can be cruel with these posts. Guess what? It’s three days until Christmas, according to my time zone. Therefore I shall do an Ebenezer and make myself merry. I’ll even write a positive “Rant”. Happy holidays.

RANT OF THE WEEK: A Brilliant Idea By A Brave Man

When World War I hit Europe, the response of culture was something more fragmented and cynical than what had come before. The Romanticism of James Fenimore Cooper and Nathaniel Hawthorne yielded to the harsh bite of Ernest Hemingway and Sigfried Sassoon. Literature was never quite the same.

Or was it? An Englishman named J.R.R. Tolkien survived those horrors as well. You might be familiar with some fantasy titles he wrote. His work seethes with pain and loss, but never with the same harshness as some other veterans of war. In fact, it’s remarkably beautiful. Perhaps it is even more beautiful than anything Cooper ever wrought with his pen, or even Hawthorne.

That’s why I’m excited and proud to hear about Benjamin Buchholz. This man went through the war in Iraq as an officer for the American army. On only his second day, a little girl was killed in an accident. Who knows what other dark things he saw after that. In any case, upon his return he decided to write a fiction book.

All of the works I’ve heard of concerning the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seem hard-boiled to me. Generation Kill and The Hurt Locker don’t have many traces of Romanticism in them. Breaking the trend (according to my limited knowledge) is Buchholz’ novel One Hundred and One Nights, about a scarred man who befriends a girl. Every night, his new friend tells him a story; Buchholz specifically drew from Scheherazade’s famous exploits to inspire his own work.

The Baltimore Sun was the first link to alert me about this. Buchholz has some amazing things to say about his literature and his experience. Give yourself an early Christmas present and see what he has to say. 

I think this could be a little different from the usual take on the Middle East. I know little about the modern literature that surrounds that (I haven’t even read The Kite Runner), but that doesn’t cool my excitement. Once I pay for next semester’s college tuition, I may want to save up and get a copy of this book. I feel like taking a chance.

STORYTELLER OF THE WEEK

Charles Dickens.

If you even need to know why, go read “The Christmas Carol”. Or check out my laud to one chapter that he wrote (the greatest chapter of any novel, anywhere, any time). All hail the master.

The Storyteller Reports: Indian Models and Classic Literature

RANT OF THE WEEK: Indian Models Exploited For Bad Literature

Google turns up things that make me cry.

More precisely, it would do so if I had tears left to shed. I just found an article from IBN Live, an Indian news service, trumpeting the use of Indian models on covers of modern romantic fiction books. Disregarding the question of why this is relevant news to the reading public in India or anywhere else, we must ask some difficult questions about this.

“Who cares?” is such an obvious question that I’ll leave it to you. “Why does IBN Live care?” is of more interest to me.

National pride doesn’t seem to be it. The books in question sound so saccharine that I would puke just to read the opening paragraph. I nearly vomited already just reading the blurb. Get a load of this…

Aastha’s novel outlines vivid descriptions of the characters in her Mills and Boons book His Monsoon Bride.

Her protagonist, Amrita, a rich heiress who never fit-in with the elite society, finds happiness working in a public interest magazine and helping out people.

The soft spoken yet independent girl is a natural Indian curvaceous beauty who strongly defies the thin body criteria of the elite.

Amrita’s life goes on uneventful till she meets Mehtab, a handsome millionaire with a ruthless and stern exterior.

In time, she realises that in reality Mehtab is really a kind and generous man whose biggest dream is to have a family. The love that follows between the two is tumultuous and decisive at the same time.”

Allow me to shorten this.

“Sexy girl hate nasty aristocrats. Aristocrats bad. Sexy girl find sexy man who act like caveman. Sexy man turn into nice guy so he can cuddle her and say cheesy passion-thingies in her ear and throw middle finger to aristocrats.”

Literature is in a sad place if such abuses are tolerated. I almost wish we were able to ban books again. But, as Kanye West put it with surprising eloquence, “No one man should have all that power.”

I’ll ignore that, then, and move on to those poor models. What does it say about the world of literature if woman are flaunted on screen like pretty toys in order to get us to buy books? Mark my words, ladies and gentlemen. I will never use the picture of a woman to sell any book that I have written in the past, or will write in the future. Not if it’s just to turn on the reader.

So the next time you see those paperbacks next to the Wal-Mart checkout (you know which ones I’m talking about), steel your brows and walk away. Say a prayer, even, if you believe in that sort of thing.

STORYTELLER OF THE WEEK

When I’m not blogging here, I’m studying English at Benedictine College. We’re in our last week of the semester, and I thought it appopriate to salute a storyteller of the highest caliber. He might not seem like one at first glance, but he merits his place.

Dr. George Nicholas, head of the English Department here, has given me a deeper appreciation for British Literature, and for literature in general. These three semesters past have been a journey which I could never have pictured before stepping into classroom 406. We’ve traced the development of the literary hero from Homer to Shakespeare. That progression would make a good novel in itself. With wit and wisdom, Dr. Nicholas has written that novel with vigorous analysis and thought-provoking ideas.

Salute him! He has traced a journey as exciting and urgent as anything you might read in Coleridge or Tennyson!