isn’t it Romantic?

What do writers think about when they read? I can’t speak for others, but for my part I like to get involved with a book.

But what form does that involvement take? To some extent, it depends on the book. Really, I want to get as much out of a book as I can, and that might take different kinds of effort in each case. In reading fiction, I want to let my imagination have free rein. When I was as teenager I used to pause in my reading to imagine the scenes as vividly as I could. I haven’t done that for a long time—I should!

Then there is the issue of ideas. All writing contains ideas of some kind, since every word stands for an idea; but in the best writing the ideas are bigger and connected in deeper and subtler ways. They stimulate and provoke, if you let them. But an education in ideas, a liberal education, is needed in order for this to happen most powerfully.

I’m still reading Julie, or the New Heloise by Jean-Jacques Rousseau; I could share some of my thoughts about that. I first heard of the book in a work called The Romantic Movement by Maurice Cranston, a primer on Romanticism by an authority in the field. Cranston states in his first paragraph that Rousseau was the first of the Romantics, and that he “introduced” the movement in 1761 with the publication of La nouvelle Heloise, “the original romantic novel.” The ideas that would come to define Romanticism had already been sketched by Rousseau in his writings on music. Rousseau, who was Swiss, was instrumental in shaking up the musical world of Paris when he arrived there and published pamphlets and operatic librettos inspired by Italian opera. In simple terms, Rousseau wanted to enliven French music by steering it away from glorifying myths of the splendor of French kings and toward a more simple and natural mode of expression. In Cranston’s words:

French music was academic, authoritarian, elitiste; Italian music by contrast was natural, spontaneous, popular, and seemed to obey no fixed rules at all.

Romanticism would come to be associated with nature and the emotions, while Classicism, the style that it sought to replace or anyway complement, was devoted to reason and order.

In fiction, the Romantic theme would come to be expressed in the story of a love triangle, in which an ardent young man falls in love with a young woman who, though also ardent, is not available to the man by reason of being of a higher class or already betrothed, or some other such social obstacle. In the true Romantic plot, the young man’s heart is broken when the woman finally chooses the more socially acceptable suitor. If you look for it, you can seen this Romantic plot playing out in many famous stories, such as Wuthering Heights. Margaret Mitchell gave the plot a twist by telling it from the woman’s point of view in Gone with the Wind. In Rousseau’s case, the plot was one that had played out in his own life, since he, like his unnamed hero, became attached to an aristocratic household in Switzerland as a tutor to the daughter of the family, and fell in love with the girl, as she also fell in love with him.

He subtitles his novel The New Heloise, which points back to a famous or infamous love affair of the 12th century in France between the philosopher Peter Abelard and the young woman Heloise. Abelard was engaged by Heloise’s uncle and guardian to tutor the girl, and before long the two of them fell in love and made use of their meetings to carry on a clandestine affair. There was even a child, Astrolabe, born of this union. When the uncle discovered what was going on, he was so furious that he arranged to have Abelard attacked in the night and castrated. Heloise and Abelard both wound up taking orders and living out their days in monastic seclusion. They exchanged letters that are famous and still in print. Heloise, although she became a very respected nun, remained devoted to her lover, not to God, whom she never could learn to love after what he had allowed to happen to Abelard.

Isnt it romantic? Writer seeks book for LTR.

Found a use for those realtors’ notepads

I’m about halfway through the book, and it remains to be seen in what ways Julie is “the new Heloise.” No castrations so far, though, I’m happy to report. Epistolary novels don’t usually interest me, but I’m finding this one engrossing. So did its original readers; apparently when it was first published it was an instant bestseller, and there was feverish desire to know whether the letters were real (Rousseau wrote the book in such a way as to leave that question open). French women were aching to find Rousseau’s frustrated lover (eventually given the pseudonym “St. Preux” in the book), or at least someone like him; and Julie, the heroine, was viewed as a new paragon of womanhood.

The young lovers are passionate, intelligent, and educated. The attraction they feel for each other is almost unbearably intense and is controlled only with the utmost difficulty. But, intriguingly, the lovers’ primary concern is virtue; they wish to be good people, and want more than anything to resolve their love in a way that is consistent with that desire. Julie, in particular, is tormented by the suffering she may bring her family, and by the possible strain she may place on her parents’ marriage, since her mother desires her happiness while her father is adamant that she cannot marry below her station. Indeed, her father has already promised her to a close friend and fellow officer.

The lovers have supportive friends: Julie her cousin Claire, who helps her arrange secret meetings, and St. Preux an English nobleman named Bomston (this was Rousseau’s idea of a name that sounded “English”!) who intercedes valiantly for his young friend and provides much encouragement and help. They are all thrilling and admirable characters.

To my surprise, the story carries on over the course of years. At this halfway point, it is 13 have passed since the lovers first met. I won’t spoil things by saying what has happened, but I have found the story turns to be fascinating and mostly unexpected. Rousseau is a very able writer, and I am studying his methods while I read.

And he was the first Romantic. Again in Cranston’s words:

Rousseau argued that the novelist’s task was not to show people acting as they ought to act (as conventional novelists such as Richardson might choose to do) but to show people acting according to their character as they would act in real life. The novelist should be a truthful chronicler of human behavior.

And in Rousseau’s view, human behavior is governed by passion, not reason. And the self or personality who experiences that passion was an object of intense interest to Rousseau and to the later Romantics. It all echoes down in to that deep chasm known as the mystery of man.

So there is a glimpse of my current reading, and a couple of thoughts to go with it. I didn’t even get to what I really wanted to talk about! Maybe next time.

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developing a story

Once you’ve worked out what story is, it’s time to figure out how to write one. This part-developing a story-isn’t easy; for some of us, it can take longer than the natural human lifespan.

But now, more than ever before, help is available. Here are some of my study notes from an important modern text: The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller (ISBN 978-0865479937) by John Truby, available from and (These are affiliate links: if you click on one and decide to buy, I may get a small commission.)

So, from the text:

Story Movement

Linear Story

The linear story tracks a single main character from beginning to end. It implies a historical or biological explanation for what happens. Most Hollywood films are linear.

Meandering Story

The meandering story follows a winding path without apparent direction. In nature, the meander is the form of rivers, snakes, and the brain. Myths like the Odyssey; comic journey stories like Don Quixote, Tom Jones, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and many of Dickens’s stories, take the meandering form. The hero has a desire, but it is not intense; he covers a great deal of territory in a haphazard way; and he encounters a number of characters from different levels of society.

Spiral Story

A spiral is a path that circles inward to the center. Thrillers like Vertigo, Blow-Up, The Conversation typically favor the spiral, in which a character keeps returning to a single event or memory and explores it at progressively deeper levels.

Branching Story

In nature, branching occurs in trees, leaves, and river basins. In storytelling, each branch usually represents a complete society in detail or a detailed stage of the same society that the hero explores. The branching form is found in more advanced fiction, such as social fantasies like Gulliver’s Travels and It’s a Wonderful Life or in multiple-hero stories like Nashville and American Graffiti.

Explosive Story

An explosion has multiple paths that extend simultaneously; in nature, the explosive pattern is found in volcanoes and dandelions. In a story, you have to tell one thing after another; so, strictly speaking, there are no explosive stories. But you can give the appearance of simultaneity. In film, this is done with the technique of the crosscut.

Stories that show (the appearance of) simultaneous action imply a comparative explanation for what happens. By seeing a number of elements all at once, the audience grasps the key idea embedded in each element. These stories also put more emphasis on exploring the story world, showing the connections between the various elements there and how everyone fits, or doesn’t fit, within the whole.

Stories that emphasize simultaneous action tend to use a branching structure and include American Graffiti, Pulp Fiction, Tristram Shandy, Ulysses, and Hannah and Her Sisters. Each emphasizes characters existing together in the story world as opposed to a single character developing from beginning to end.

developing a story - a scene from Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, a meandering story

An explosive scene from a meandering story – The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding

Writing Your Story

Here’s the writing process we’re going to use. We will work through the techniques of great storytelling in the same order that you construct your story. You will construct your story from the inside out. That means:

  • making the story personal and unique to you
  • finding and developing what is original within your story idea

With each chapter, your story will grow and become more detailed, with each part connected to every other part.

  • Premise:We begin with the premise, which is your entire story condensed to a single sentence. That premise will suggest the essence of the story; we will use that to figure out how to develop it so as to get the most out of the idea.
  • Seven Key Story Structure Steps: The seven key story structure steps are the major stages of your story’s development and of the dramatic code hidden under its surface. Think of the seven structure steps as your story’s DNA.
  • Character: Next, we will create the characters, not by pulling them out of thin air but by drawing them out of your original story idea. We will connect and compare each character to every other character so that each one is strong and well defined. Then we’ll figure out the function each must perform in helping your hero develop.
  • Theme (Moral Argument): The theme is your moral vision, your view of how people should act in the world. We will express the theme inherent in the story idea. And we’ll express the theme through the story structure, so that it both surprises and moves the audience.
  • Story World: Next, we’ll create the world of the story as an outgrowth of your hero. The story world will help you define your hero and show the audience a physical expression of his growth.
  • Symbol Web: Symbols are packets of highly compressed meaning. We’ll figure out a web of symbols that highlight and communicate different aspects of the characters, the story world, and the plot.
  • Plot: From the characters we will discover the right story form; the plot will grow from your unique characters. Using the 22 story-structure steps (the seven key steps plus 15 more), we will design a plot in which all the events are connected under the surface and build to a surprising but logically necessary ending.
  • Scene Weave: In the laststep before writing scenes, we’ll come up with a list of every scene in the story, with all the plotlines and themes woven into a tapestry.
  • Scene Construction and Symphonic Dialogue:Finally, we’ll write the story, constructing each scene so that it furthers the development of your hero. We’ll write dialogue that doesn’t just push the plot but has a symphonic quality, blending many “instruments” and levels at one time.

One final reveal: If you want to tell the great story, you must, like your hero, face your own seven steps. And you must do it every time you write a new story. If you can learn the craft and make your own life a great story, you will be amazed at the fabulous tales you will tell.


Again, these notes are from The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller by John Truby. If you’re a storyteller, I would recommend that you add it to your craft library. And, again, you can get it from and

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what does story mean, anyway?

Storytelling became something of a dirty word in the 20th century, at least among writers of serious fiction. It was seen as the concern of lesser, commercial writers. I’m not sure things are changing even now, but in this serious writer’s opinion, storytelling is about 85% of the fiction writer’s craft. But what exactly is story? What does story mean?

I intend to share some of the study I’ve done on this subject. These notes are highlights from John Truby’s excellent The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller (available from, and are affiliate links, meaning that when you click on the link, I may get a small commission).


So what does story mean?

Here’s a one-line definition:

A speaker tells a listener what someone did to get what he wanted and why.

We have three distinct elements:

  • the teller
  • the listener
  • the story

The storyteller is first and foremost someone who plays. Stories are verbal games the author plays with the audience. The storyteller lays out a set of actions that have been completed in some way.

But telling a story is not simply making up events. Events are just descriptive. The storyteller is really selecting, connecting, and building a series of intense moments. These moments are so charged that the listener feels he is living them himself. Good storytelling doesn’t just tell audiences what happened in a life. It gives them the experience of that life. It is the essential life, just the crucial thoughts and events, but conveyed with such freshness and newness that it feels part of the audience’s essential life too.

Good storytelling lets the audience relive events in the present so they can understand the forces, choices, and emotions that led the character to do what he did. Stories are really giving the audience a form of emotional knowledge, or what used to be known as wisdom, in a playful, entertaining way.

As a creator of verbal games that let the audience relive a life, the storyteller is constructing a kind of puzzle about people and asking the listener to figure it out. The author creates this puzzle in two major ways:

  • he tells the audience certain information about a made-up character, and
  • he withholds certain information

Withholding, or hiding, information is crucial to the storyteller’s make-believe. It forces the audience to figure out who the character is and what he is doing and so draws the audience into the story. When the audience no longer has to figure out the story, it ceases being an audience, and the story stops.

Audiences love both the feeling part (reliving the life) and the thinking part (figuring out the puzzle) of a story. Every good story has both. But you can see stsory forms that go to one extreme or the other, from sentimental melodrama to the most cerebral detective story.

The Story

What do all stories do?

Key Point: All stories are a form of communication that expresses the dramatic code.

The dramatic code, embedded deep in the human psyche, is an artistic description of how a person can grow or evolve. This code is also a process going on underneath every story. The storyteller hides this process beneath particular characters and actions. But the code of growth is what the audience ultimately takes from a good story.

In the dramatic code, change is fueled by desire. Desire is what propels all conscious, living things and gives them direction. A story tracks what a person wants, what he’ll do to get it, and what costs he’ll have to pay.

Once a character has a desire, the story “walks” on two “legs”:

  • acting
  • learning

A character pursuing a desire takes actions to get what he wants, and he learns new information about better ways to get it. Whenever he learns new information, he makes a decision and changes his course of action.

All stories move in this way. But some story forms highlight one of these activities over the other. The genres that highlight taking action the most are myth and its later version, the action form. The genres that highlight learning the most are the detective story and the multiperspective drama.

Any character who goes after a desire and is impeded is forced to struggle (otherwise the story is over). That struggle makes him change. So the ultimate goal of the dramatic code, and of the storyteller, is to present a change in a character or to illustrate why that change did not occur.

The different forms of storytelling frame human change in differing ways:

  • Mythtends to show the widest character arc, from birth to death and from animal to divine
  • Plays typically focus on the main character’s moment of decision
  • Film (especially American film) shows the small change a character might undergo by seeking a limited goal with great intensity
  • Classic short storiesusually track a few events that lead the character to gain a single important insight
  • Serious novels typically depict how a person interacts and changes within an entire society or show the precise mental and emotional processes leading up to his change
  • Television dramashows a number of characters in a minisociety struggling to change simultaneously

Drama is a code of maturity. The focal point is the moment of change, the impact, when a person breaks free of habits and weaknesses and ghosts from his past and transforms to a richer and fuller self. The dramatic code expresses the idea that human beings can become a better version of themselves, psychologically and morally. That’s why people love it.

Key point: Stories don’t show the audience the “real world”; they show the story world. The story world is life a human beings imagine it could be. It is human life condensed and heightened so that the audience can gain a better understanding of how life itself works.

The Story Body

Just as the human body is made up of the nervous system, the circulatory system, and so on, a story is made of subsystems like the characters, the plot, the revelations sequence, the story world, the moral argument, the symbol web, the scene weave, and symphonic dialogue.

Key point: Each subsystem of the story consists of a web of elements that help define and differentiate the other elements.

No individual element in your story, including the hero, will work unless you first create it and define it in relation to all the other elements.


Again, these notes are from The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller by John Truby, available from or

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lovers die; long live love letters!

I’ve often read or heard other bloggers complain of not knowing what to post about: “What can I put in this week’s blog post?” Heck, I have said the same myself. But in reality I think my problem is the reverse: I have too much to say, and don’t know what to choose or where to begin.

But I have a blog and I do want to use it. I’d love to post every week and have many times “committed” to myself to do so. Ha. I’m afraid that my blog, like everything and everyone else in my life, will have to take what it can get. Know, dear reader, that I want to be doing more!

One thing I can always talk about is my reading. I read every day, and I think about what I read. There’s no need to wait till I write a book review to share some of that. And I review only a small minority of the books I read, in any case.

I generally have a novel or other poetic work on the go as part of my daily reading. Currently I’m reading Julie, or the New Heloise, by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, first published in 1761. It’s an epistolary novel, taking the form of an exchange of letters between two young lovers in Switzerland, and careful study of references in the text has revealed that the fictional exchange takes place in 1734. Surprisingly, to me, considering its subject, the book is massive: the Dartmouth College edition that I’ve borrowed from the Vancouver Public Library runs to 728 long pages. A bunch of these are introduction and notes, to be sure, but still, how could Rousseau have written such a long work on such a seemingly slight topic? This novel alone constitutes volume 6 of the 7 volumes of the Collected Writings of Rousseau. I would have to dip in and read it to find out.

Lovers die; long live love letters! The cover of Julie by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Passion on the coffee table

I first heard of this novel while reading The Romantic Movement by Maurice Cranston, a book I got in 2004. (That book, in turn, I learned of while reading an astrological text, The Astrological Neptune and the Quest for Redemption by Liz Greene—a wonderful book by a noted astrologer.) I was intrigued to learn that Julie was a work that helped to launch the Romantic movement, and indeed that Cranston names Rousseau “the first of the Romantics.” Romanticism was, in part, a reaction against the 18th-century Age of Reason, and affirmed, against the classical celebration of reason, the importance of emotion, passion, and mystery in the human experience, especially as it is depicted in the arts. As a seminal work of this important movement, Julie was of interest to me. (Another key work, according to Cranston, was Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, another epistolary novel published in 1774—a much shorter work which I have also recently read.)

Reading about the Romantics in 2004 flagged the novel to my attention, but it did not make it high onto my reading list until recently, now that I am involved in editing the love-correspondence between my departed friends Harvey and Dorothy Burt, which my mother and I are shaping into a book, or a series of books, called The Hour of Separation. Part of the process of getting ready to propose this work to agents and publishers is to review other similar and related works, to see how ours will complement and compete with them in the literary marketplace. I decided that Julie, as the first “romance in letters,” needed to be on that list, even if it is not much read anymore (although the VPL has a copy, none of the other local libraries does). Thus did it make its way into my reading stack.

So now I’m reading it. I’m 98 pages in, and I have to report that what started as a mere duty has become a pleasure. This surprises me a lot, because, in the first place, I’m not keen on epistolary novels. Pages and pages of people talking about their thoughts and feelings is a poor substitute for the vivid depiction of action. And it seems to me that the intimate personal quality of letters, their reality in reporting a real person’s thoughts, feelings, and state of mind at a particular moment, can’t really be captured in fiction. We remain subtly aware that these characters are not real people, that all the correspondence is really coming from a single hand; the quality of authenticity can’t be faked.

Well, I’m finding that Rousseau is getting around this somehow. It turns out he’s a good enough writer to do it!  Rousseau, to be sure, is a great writer: he is one of the authors whose works were selected for inclusion in the Britannica Great Books of the Western World series published in 1952 (Rousseau’s titles in the series: On the Origin of Inequality, On Political Economy, and The Social Contract, in volume 38). He gets things moving quickly with a young scholar who takes up a post as tutor to an 18-year-old girl, Julie, in a well-to-do household in Vevey, Switzerland, on the south shore of Lake Geneva. Before long the 20-year-old scholar, who remains nameless all through the early part of the correspondence, is in love with his pupil, and, he is stunned and ecstatic to learn, she is in love with him too. Problem: the difference in class between them precludes the possibility of marriage, or anyway a marriage that her parents could consent to. And so they remain locked in a furnace of emotional passion, unable to do much about it except write to each other.

Which they do. While the lovers are different from each other, both are passionate, sensitive, and eloquent, and in the intoxication of love they explore the moral, spiritual, and aesthetic issues of their situation. But there is also a story: we look on as the lovers create schemes to get private time together, and then read about how things went awry along the way. Just as though these were real letters, we are not told exactly what happened, since the lovers were present at the events themselves, and we have to piece together the action by inferring things from what the lovers say. The author handles this skillfully, and apparently there are things that come clear only gradually over the course of the whole correspondence. I’ll admit it, I’m curious now about where it’s all going to go.

The novel’s full title is Julie, or the New Heloise: Letters of Two Lovers Who Live in a Small Town at the Foot of the Alps. “Heloise” is an allusion to the 12th-century woman who had a passionate affair with the French philosopher Peter Abelard. He became her tutor when she was 17, and when her guardian and uncle found out that the pair had become lovers, he was so furious that he arranged for Abelard to be surprised in his bed at night and castrated. Abelard and Heloise both wound up entering religious orders, and embarked on a famous correspondence of their own (which I am also reading now). Heloise, intelligent and educated, became an abbess, but she did so only because her lover commanded her to; she loved only him and felt nothing for God. Anyway, their story was a subject of much interest in France in the 18th century, and Rousseau must have seen in it a hook on which to hang his developing ideas about Romanticism. And apparently it also closely parallels a time in Rousseau’s own life when he was such a tutor—in Switzerland—and fell in love with his pupil. It will be interesting to see how strong the parallel is between the real-life medieval lovers and Rousseau’s fictional Swiss pair. I find myself hoping, at the very least, that the young man manages to keep all of his organs contiguous with his body. So far (now to page 112) the lovers have skillfully managed to avoid detection.

So there you have it: the fictional portion of my current reading stack. I’ve got a few other books on the go; maybe I’ll talk about them next. I’ve only scratched the surface about this one. There’s too much to write about, and that, friends, is why I write so little.

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not only public libraries have stacks

Ever since late adolescence I have maintained a reading stack: a stack of books that are all more or less on the go at the same time. When I was in my early 20s, my two roommates, semifacetiously, made a rule that my stack could not exceed a certain size (I think it was 8 books), but the rule was a dead letter upon enactment, since by then this style of reading had become entrenched with me.

I like reading more than one book at a time. I have a number of different interest, and I like to support them through reading.  And my attention span is such that I can’t stick with any one text for too long; generally, an hour is all that I can stand reading anything, no matter how much I’m enjoying it or passionate I am about the topic at that moment. I become fatigued and need to change. With my stack, I just put down one book and pull out another one.

This the stack as it exists at this moment. The table stands on the left hand of my reading chair, a nice chair of soft brown leather. The books currently on active service are the top 4 in the stack.

The stack of books Paul is reading

Books do furnish a room

The one on top is Mindfulness with Breathing: A Manual for Serious Beginners by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, a Thai meditation master (now deceased: he died in 1993). As I recall, this was one of the books I was put on to in the bibliography of Daniel Goleman’s The Meditative Mind (although now, darn it, I can’t find it in there). Anyway, I like to start my reading period with a dharma book, as an expression of the idea that my spiritual development is my top priority in life. I wanted to learn more about the details of mindfulness meditation, and this book looked promising. It’s quite different from what I’m used to, since Buddhadasa was in the tradition of Southern Buddhism, which has its main stronghold in the Theravada schools of Sri Lanka, and my own tradition is within the Vajrayana world of Northern Buddhism, but for some reason I have an appetite to expand my horizon and learn more about the teachings as the Buddha first presented them. So: Mindfulness with Breathing.

Next each day I read fiction. Right now I’m making my way—with great enjoyment—through David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. It’s the thick paperback (982 pages) in 4th spot in the stack, and it’s a library book. I don’t usually buy fiction (I know—and me a writer of it): too many experiences of buyer’s remorse. Generally a novel has to prove itself to me before I’ll buy it. David Copperfield is good enough to buy. As I recall, it made it onto my reading list (a Notes document I keep on my iPhone) because it is mentioned early in The Catcher in the Rye as the kind of book that Holden Caulfield does not wish to write about himself. I’d already put The Catcher in the Rye on my list (although I’d read it before as a teenager), so I thought I should read Dickens’ work before trying Salinger’s again. Plus I have long wanted to remedy the lack of Dickens in my reading history. So David Copperfield it is, and wow, what a book. More on that anon, when I finish it.

The next slot in my daily reading period I devote to the Great Books, a used set of which I acquired in 2010. I’ve tried different approaches to reading the books, but have settled at last on a basically chronological approach. My plan is to read the whole set chronologically, starting with the Old Testament (although Encyclopedia Britannica did not actually include a version of the OT in their set, since the Bible is so universally available). But for variety I switch between works, and I’m doing this in an orderly way. Basically that means that right now I am switching between the Bible, Plato, and Aristotle. Book number 3 in the stack is volume 8 of the Britannica Great Books: Aristotle I. I’m currently reading his book entitled On Generation and Corruption, which discusses how things come to be, how they grow, change, and interact, and how they cease to be. While some of the ideas sound quaint, the underlying philosophical problems are still with us. It’s heavy going, and I can manage only 3 or 4 pages a day (this volume runs to 726 pages). When I’ve read 100 pages of it, I’ll cycle back to the Bible.

Next is research reading for the book project I’m working on with my mother, a collection of letters that we’re calling The Hour of Separation (taken from a line by Kahlil Gibran). These are love letters by our late friends Harvey and Dorothy Burt, and they form a passionate and fascinating collection. So I’m putting together a book proposal, and toward that end I’m reading other books that may possibly comparable in some way to the book we’re proposing. Right now I’m reading Nella Last’s War: The Second World War Diaries of Housewife, 49. This is the published journal of a housewife who lived in Barrow-in-Furness, England, and who participated in a project known as Mass-Observation, in which volunteers from around the country agreed to keep diaries of their daily life and to submit these to the project managers. Nella Last was one of the best and most devoted of these volunteers, and her journal provides a detailed view of everyday life during the war years in the U.K. The relationship to our project is that it’s an intimate slice of real life as told by the one living it. The Hour of Separation does something similar, but in the context of a love affair conducted in the mid-1950s. Nella Last is a good writer—but our correspondents, Harvey and Dorothy, are also very good writers, and writing not for posterity, but for each other. The result is something much more intimate and intense.

The rest of the books in the stack, with one exception, are a combination of new books that I have not yet started and books that I have left off reading but have not yet admitted that I’m done with for now and should be reshelved. The exception is a book called Cosmos, Chaos, and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith by Norman Cohn. I was put onto this book by looking back through Omens of Millennnium by Harold Bloom, where Bloom refers to it as one of his major authorities on the subject of angels. Angels are of great interest to me, so I determined that I should get Cohn’s book. I was ready to buy a copy, but some vague suspicion caused me to scan my own bookshelves first: sure enough, I already had a copy! I’d got it in February 2007 and had not yet read it (I had started it—the first chapter was heavily highlighted.) So I pulled it down and started reading. A bit dry and dense, but rich with things that interest me. But in my current situation, I don’t usually manage to get to it on any given day. The other 4 books have me tired out by that stage.

So there you have it. You’ll also note the handy Webster’s dictionary (10th edition; the 11th edition is here at my desk, for work) and, behind that, a copy of Philosophy Now magazine. It’s issue #124, February/March 2018. You might want to get yourself a copy, for they have published a letter from me. They’ve given it the title “The Buddhist Boomerang,” and it’s quite good if I say so myself. But maybe more on that later. They didn’t alert me that they were going to publish it; I just opened the magazine and there it was. Fun!

You’re acquainted now with the current incarnation of my beloved stack. Perhaps I will keep you posted as it evolves and changes. Can you handle that much excitement?

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reviewing the reviewers

I don’t like reading reviews of my work—not even positive ones. And I can recall reading about other artists, even prominent and great ones, who feel the same way, and who never read reviews of their own work. I can well understand it.

But reviews are important in order to become known and accepted by an audience, and writers who are seeking to establish a beachhead with the reading public are advised that even bad reviews are preferable to none, to mere oblivion. With the torrent of books, especially e-books, being published, reviews of any kind help to make a work “real,” to make it visible in the sandstorm.

Toward this end, the securing of reviews, I’ve tried a couple of review services for the 2 short stories I published in 2017: A Tourist Visa and The Thought Dial. These are fee services, but the reviewers themselves do not receive any fee; they are volunteers who agree to write a review in exchange for a free copy of the book. Since providing free copies to reviewers is a time-honored practice in publishing, I did not and do not see anything unethical in it. On the contrary, I’m grateful to these good-hearted people who are willing to take a chance on my work. My thanks to you all.

So far, I have to admit that my stories are faring less well than I’d hoped. On Goodreads, A Tourist Visa has garnered an average rating of 3.67 stars out of a possible 5, based on 6 ratings; The Thought Dial has clocked 3.17 stars, also based on 6 ratings. Not terrible, but not setting the world on fire. The reviews themselves are pretty thoughtful, I have to admit, and often positive. These people have completely fulfilled their part of the bargain.

One thought I have is that maybe I have review karma coming my way. With fiction I tend to be a hard marker, and have handed out my share of 3-star ratings, sometimes flying in the face of well-established critical opinion, as in the case of, say, The Brothers Karamazov. As a reader I am fussy and critical, and therefore have no right to expect to be exempted from comparable scrutiny.

But my very fussiness and criticalness should benefit my own writing; I should be holding my own work to at least the standard that I apply to others’. And this I do to the best of my ability. I read my own stories with the same critical eye that I apply to the work of other writers. I have to enjoy reading my own work, and I keep working on a piece of writing until I do enjoy it. I let each work rest between drafts, and then read it with fresh eyes. When I enjoy reading it all the way through, I know it’s ready to go: it’s as good as I can make it.

We come to the matter of taste: one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. If 2 readers don’t enjoy the same things, their reviews are going to be quite different from each other. The Harry Potter books are one of the biggest phenomena in literary history, but I never could climb on the Potter bandwagon. I never finished the first book of the series; it just wasn’t speaking to me. I thought it was a brilliant idea, but it seemed that the narrator was just too into kicking the crap out of the Dursleys—something like that. So I let that phenomenon pass me by.

I do believe that there is such a thing as objective standards of literary quality, and I do believe that, ideally, a book reviewer should try to be aware of these and apply them. But at the same time, we all take enjoyment in different things due to our different natures and circumstances, and there is literature out there to appeal to every taste. When we read something, we know whether we’re enjoying it or not, and how much, and it’s only natural for our review of that work to reflect our experience.

Bottom line: yes, I need to bring up my game and write as well as I can. I continue to study and learn my craft, and I work to apply its principles to the best of my ability. I will read my reviews and try to learn from them. There’s not much I can do with a note like, “I don’t really like short stories,” but if there are specific notes or comments that I can use to try to strengthen my technique, then I will do my best to incorporate them. However, I also need to find my audience. These are the people who get what I’m trying to do. They enjoy spending time with my mind, who appreciate my way of looking at the world. They may only ever be a small minority of the reading world, but small minorities have their place, and indeed it can be a wonderful place. And, possibly, by means of this blog and other avenues, I can persuade others to see positive features in what I do; I can educate a wider readership to enjoy my particular blend of outlook, creativity, and precision.

If you’d like to join in the reviewing fun, my favorite service so far is BookTasters. If you’ve got a Twitter account, follow @BookTasters and jump up for any of the books they tweet about. You can read as many free e-books as you want, and also have some personal interaction with their authors. If you’re thoughtful and honest with your reviews, you’ve done all that anyone could ask.

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researching virtue and vice

If I have a sudden desire to investigate or study something, I try to act on it. I trust that the desire is coming from a good place, even if I don’t know exactly where that is or why it is drawing me.

When I got my set of the Britannica Great Books of the Western World in 2010, and saw the list of 102 Great Ideas, I was intrigued to note that one of them was Virtue & Vice, and that 6 others were specific virtues and vices:

  • Courage
  • Justice
  • Knowledge (or Science—both are Great Ideas)
  • Prudence
  • Temperance
  • Wisdom

Out of 102 Great Ideas, at least 7 are in some way concerned with the issue of virtue and vice—almost 7%! I found this curious, since virtue and vice seemed to me to be old-fashioned terms, echoes of a bygone age of prudish piety. When I read the essays associated with these ideas, I came to think differently. We’re every bit as concerned today with good and bad, and how our own and others’ behavior rates when considered in the light of these basic categories.

Then along came some writing texts by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi, specifically The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws and The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes, both published in 2013. The authors use the terms character flaws and character attributes, but I think these are essentially the same as vices and virtues, for my Webster’s gives these definitions:

  • vice: a moral fault or failing
  • virtue: a particular moral excellence

The Great Books discuss only a limited list of the major virtues (and their corresponding vices), but Ackerman and Puglisi’s books, seeking to provide aid to storytellers, contain much longer, more detailed lists. For example, The Negative Trait Thesaurus list begins with these entries:

  • Abrasive
  • Addictive
  • Antisocial
  • Apathetic
  • Callous
  • Catty
  • Childish

The total list comes to 106 entries. The Positive Trait Thesaurus begins with these:

  • Adaptable
  • Adventurous
  • Affectionate
  • Alert
  • Ambitious
  • Analytical
  • Appreciative

And the total list here comes to 99 entries. Both thesauri have further lists of synonyms in the back, which direct the reader to the main entries. These books are a great resource, and I recommend them to any storyteller. They will get you thinking about character in fruitful, productive ways.

The authors note that they did not actually comb the dictionary to find and list every character flaw and attribute; they were looking to get the most important ones. The implication was that it is too tedious or not sufficiently rewarding to go all the way through the dictionary looking for these traits. And this got me wondering: how many of these traits are actually in the dictionary, actually in our language?

List of virtue and vice against the background of a dictionary page

The things you find in the dictionary

I decided to find out. A few weeks ago, I amended my afternoon reading period to include a segment with my Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, in which I pore over it page by page, looking for positive and negative trait words. I do about 20 pages a night, which takes me around 20 minutes. I’ve been at for about a month, and am about halfway through—in the Ms. It is a bit tedious, but also interesting. It’s not a rigorous comb-through, it’s even a bit arbitrary. But doing it is getting me thinking about virtue and vice in a different way.

For one thing, I find that a pragmatic definition of virtue is arising—something like:

a trait or habit that leads toward a good, and that is capable of being deliberately strengthened or suppressed

By the same token, a vice would be:

a trait or habit that leads away from a good, and that is capable of being deliberately strengthened or suppressed

And for the sake of comparison, here are the first entries on my own list, which consolidates virtues and vices, so I will give the first 14 instead of the first 7:

  • able
  • abrasive
  • abrupt
  • absentminded
  • abstemious
  • abstinent
  • abusive
  • accepting
  • accommodating
  • acerbic
  • acquisitive
  • active
  • acute
  • adamant

I’ve made many quick judgment calls. Is adamant really a trait, or is it more of a behavior with respect to a particular situation? When I waver, my policy is to include the word; I can always throw it out later.

What will I do with this list, once I’ve got it? I’m not sure. I was curious enough to create it, so I will just see where that leads. I suspect that I may start developing my own theory of virtue and vice, and possibly looking for ways to apply that theory to storytelling. It’s already fun to imagine characters that embody these traits. What if you had to build a character based on 3 consecutive traits from the list? What would a character be like who was active, acute, and adamant, for instance? Unusual things spring to mind.

So there is a glimpse of one thing going on in this writer’s mind and world. Where will it lead?

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of Grinches and artists

I just watched How the Grinch Stole Christmas last night for the umpteenth time. Was I tired of it? No! I found it funnier and more delightful than ever, still a serious contender for “best half-hour of TV ever produced.” Only one thing disturbs me a bit: the Grinch’s remark, early on, that he has been looking down on the Whos’ Christmas celebrations for 53 years. I could never imagine anyone being old enough to make a statement like that; now the Grinch has become one of my peeps. He’s solidly middle aged.

Well, it happens to the best of us–if we live long enough. And I wish you a long life, and a happy one.

Sharp-eyed followers of this blog will have noted the new Patreon badge in the left sidebar. Christmas seems as good a time as any to bring to mind those less fortunate than yourself, such as those who, due to oxygen privation at birth or repeated blows to the head, have elected to pursue a life in the fine arts. Everyone knows that this is not a good idea; nonetheless, some of us find ourselves in the position of persevering in the arts long past the point when more sensible people have given up. Now is the season to let your heart be touched by our predicament.

Patreon is a site that connects artists (“creators”) with patrons: those willing to help an artist by making a one-time or an ongoing financial contribution to his continuing effort. One good thing is that those contributions can be as low as US$1.

If you click on the badge, it does not commit you to pledging anything. Rather, you will be taken to my home page on Patreon, where you can read the short spiel I’ve written there, and also watch the short (2-minute) video I’ve recorded. That prospect alone should be enough to lure you. Then you can abandon the page and get on with your life, or, possibly, you could opt to click one of my pledge buttons and become a patron. (You can “unbecome” one at any time.) US$1 a month will do it.

I’m about to publish my short story The Thought Dial, about some of the agonies associated with teen dating, and soon after will come Lost Kings, a story about a young man’s quest for spiritual meaning while drifting through Europe in the late 1970s. I’m going to keep writing and publishing, come what may, and I warmly invite you to become a partner in that undertaking. I’m offering rewards for pledges, so please click the badge, and come and check them out.

Merry Christmas.

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coming attractions

I find it difficult getting my work published—even when I do the publishing myself!

It takes time to get all the elements to come together (and for me, it takes time to do anything at all). I can work fast if necessary, as it was while The Odyssey was in production, but in the main I find it’s not worth the stress. When all is said, I’d rather enjoy myself than highball to get a thing out the door sooner. The product will be more “me” this way.

Also, rush jobs are usually not quite satisfactory. There will be errors or other signs of shortcuts having been taken. That’s not to say that my work is without errors (and feel free to report any to me if you spot them), but I think you can tell by the look and feel of a thing what quality of love and attention has been lavished on it. The very finest things are totally uneconomical in this way: they manifest excellence and loved in a way that goes beyond their sticker price. They show that the creator could not possibly have been compensated adequately for his time and effort. He was serving the goddesses Love and Beauty, and very likely felt privileged to do so. This is the labor of art.

It’s what I seek to do with my own creations. The work that I am in the process of bringing to publication is another short story, this one called The Thought Dial. Like A Tourist Visa, it’s a story I drafted long ago, in 1992, and it got pushed aside by other, more pressing projects. With the power of publication in my own hands, I don’t want to let any of my potentially publishable work to go to waste, so out the door it goes—soon. One thing that has taken time to get right is the cover art. I came up with the concept and design, and engaged two separate artists to help me bring it to fruition. The design is simple, but it takes time to get the details right.

At last, though, I feel that the cover looks the way it should, and I can publish at last. Now there is a new glitch: the planet Mercury has turned retrograde in the sky, which is a negative indicator for starting any new undertaking (I have heard that Stephen Spielberg will not allow any film of his to be released while Mercury is retrograde). The retrograde will last until December 23. I will publish The Thought Dial, a story about a teenage boy anxiously preparing to ask a girl for a date, as soon as I can after that.

Meanwhile, I would like to offer you a glimpse of the cover for the e-book. This is what all my fussing was about. You can contemplate as you await the arrival of that new story. Enjoy.

Coming attractions

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celebrate International Hermit Day

As far as I know, I have invented International Hermit Day: it is November 9, the date on which my short story, The Hermit, is set. It’s a date I’ll always remember, for I chose it with great care; it has symbolic significance in that youthful story, written back in 1979–80, before my 21st birthday. The story still serves as a kind of artistic manifesto.

I invite you to give it a read. Get a free copy by signing up for my mailing list. (By all means, check out the story’s description first.) Then curl up somewhere (alone), maybe with some herbal tea or plain water, and mark International Hermit Day in the most appropriate way possible.

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