Thomas Bowdler’s Revenge!

Shakespeare censored

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet had a happy ending. In Hamlet, Ophelia accidentally drowned. And when Lady Macbeth gazed upon her guilty hand, she cried, “Out, crimson spot!”

Doesn’t sound quite right, does it? But those are some of the edits Thomas Bowdler made to render Shakespeare less violent and less frightening. Bowdler’s 1818 The Family Shakespeare removed what Bowdler called “those words and expressions… which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family.”

In fact, Bowdler’s work was appreciated in Victorian times, and poet Algernon Charles Swinburne credited Bowdler for making Shakespeare approachable for children. But today, the word “Bowdlerize” signifies the reworking of a piece to make it less offensive, but also weaker and less effective.

Before we start feeling superior to those stuffy old Victorians, we need to pay attention to a growing neo-Bowdler campaign to tone down text that could offend. Sadly, some publishers are resorting to “sensitivity readers” whose explicit job is to Bowdlerize manuscripts:

Before a book is published and released to the public, it’s passed through the hands (and eyes) of many people: an author’s friends and family, an agent and, of course, an editor.

These days, though, a book may get an additional check from an unusual source: a sensitivity reader, a person who, for a nominal fee, will scan the book for racist, sexist or otherwise offensive content. These readers give feedback based on self-ascribed areas of expertise such as “dealing with terminal illness,” “racial dynamics in Muslim communities within families” or “transgender issues.”

The Chicago Tribune story cites the case of author Veronica Roth, whose novel, Carve the Mark was denounced “for its portrayal of chronic pain in its main character.”

That’s sad. It’s a rough-and-tumble world out there, and if you can’t handle viewpoints that challenge your sensibilities, you’re in for some rude shocks.

I see this as yet another symptom of a society that’s self-segregated itself into prickly, snarling little dens of conformity. Too many people see the world through a pre-fabricated lens and as a result, cannot cope with views from outside their cocoons. If all you know of the world comes from Fox News or Huffington Post, you feel you must condemn all who fail to uphold the One True Way.

Get away from that computer. Go outside. Talk to real people. At the very least, dare to consider ideas from outside your “Favorites” list.

Jack Kirby is Still King!

thor

I loved this tribute from playwright John Ostrander:

What makes Jack Kirby the King? For me, it’s this.

Imagination – The word “prodigious” comes to mind. So many concepts, so many characters, bear his mark. So many styles of stories. From the spires of Asgard to the weird distortions of the Negative Zone to the brutal cityscapes of Apokolips, to Ego the Living Planet, no one could top his visuals.

Storytelling – His figures leaped off the page. The panels couldn’t contain the events on them. Even standing still, they vibrated with potential power. There was energy to burn on his pages. You felt them as much as you read them. You couldn’t read the story fast enough and when one issue was done you wanted the next one right now.

Artistry – Okay, his anatomy was not always perfect. And every woman’s face looked the same. He was still one of the best ARTISTS that ever drew a comic because comics are about storytelling and no one beat Kirby as a storyteller.

The featured image is a scan from my copy of The Mighty Thor # 159, from December, 1968. It’s a perfect example of the barely contained power that animates all of Jack Kirby’s illustrations. You can feel the tension in this scene: Thor, despite his earth-shattering might, approaches his father Odin with the most profound respect — and more than a little bit of fear. As well he should: Odin could rage and roar like no other monarch in comicdom.

I have no doubt Marvel Comics in its Silver Age strongly influenced me. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby definitely expanded my vocabulary, often forcing me to set my latest comic down to riffle through the dictionary to discover the meaning of what I’d just read. And the high quality of the stories and characterization I encountered in those comics, as well as the heroic subject matter, whetted my appetite in grade and high school for Beowulf, Shakespeare, science, and history.

Side note on the scanned picture of Thor: At the tender age of 31, barely a year after getting married, I sold my comic book collection. My wife and I needed money for a down payment on a house, and the stern lesson of 1 Corinthians recited at our wedding still reverberated in my ear: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

So it was time to let go of Spiderman, Daredevil, the Fantastic Four, and the X-Men. But I held on to three of my favorite issues of Thor. I’ve found the best way to move forward is to hold on to a few pieces of a beloved past.

Unbound II: Changed Worlds

Unbound II Changed Worlds
Award-winning DAOwen Publications has just released its latest anthology, Unbound II: Changed Worlds.

It features my story “Hunting Ground,” which is set in a brooding wetland in rural North Carolina. I grew up in the country, and the farm next to ours had a two-acre marsh where I stomped and rambled and dreamed away many an afternoon. It teemed with exotic plants, frogs, copperheads, and dark, mysterious pools. Now those were the days …

Hunting Ground

In my story, police discover the body of a fracking engineer buried near the marsh where he’d been working, and they arrest an anti-fracking activist who’d threatened him. Buddy Vuncannon, the defendant’s attorney, discovers the marsh hides a bizarre secret that could clear his client — if there were a way he could prove it in court.

My fascination with all things swampy and a Science Alert article about a mysterious stretch of land near Lake Michigan inspired the story. “Hunting Ground” is lively and entertaining, but its topic is serious. Fracking involves pumping a cocktail of chemicals and water deep underground where it cracks open layers of shale to unleash natural gas. The threat to the local water supply is profound.

Exposing the truth about fracking is all well and good, but the real goal is to renew respect and appreciation for nature. No one understands this better than poet/novelist/activist Wendell Berry. In his fiction and essays, Berry argues that the excesses of industrialism, from environmental piracy to the over-concentration of wealth, can be countered only by a rebirth of affection for the local, by which he means love and loyalty for the land we live on and for the people we live with.

Here’s how the National Endowment for the Humanities describes Berry’s literary/political mission:

In the debate that set Thomas Jefferson against Alexander Hamilton—and rural farms against cities, and agriculture against banking interests—Berry stands with Jefferson. He stands for local culture and the small family farmer, for yeoman virtues and an economic and political order that is modest enough for its actions and rationales to be discernible. Government, he believes, should take its sense of reality from the ground beneath our feet and from our connections with our fellow human beings.

And it is my passionate belief that one way we can strengthen or even restore those connections is through a good story. I hope you enjoy “Unbound II: Changed Worlds.”

Why kids can learn more from tales of fantasy than realism

Fantasy learning

Deena Weisberg is a senior fellow in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Her specialty is “imaginative cognition,” which studies how imagination boosts one’s ability to learn. Her research demonstrates that children absorb new material taught in the context of a fanciful scenario better than they do when it’s presented in more realistic terms. In a recent edition of Aeon, she challenges herself with a question she’s grappled with before: Why do fantastical stories stimulate learning?

What can be going on? Perhaps children are more engaged and attentive when they see events that challenge their understanding of how reality works. After all, the events in these fantastical stories aren’t things that children can see every day. So they might pay more attention, leading them to learn more.

A different, and richer, possibility is that there’s something about fantastical contexts that is particularly helpful for learning. From this perspective, fantastical fiction might do something more than hold children’s interest better than realistic fiction. Rather, immersion in a scenario where they need to think about impossible events might engage children’s deeper processing, precisely because they can’t treat these scenarios as they would every other scenario that they encounter in reality.

They must consider every event with fresh eyes, asking whether it fits with the world of the story and whether it could fit within the laws of reality. This constant need to evaluate a story might make these situations particularly ripe for learning.

Writers of every genre know that a fresh metaphor adds to a reader’s interest and enjoyment. But Weisberg is arguing that there’s more to fantasy stories than just another metaphor. It appears that the act of forming impossible scenarios in one’s mind focuses more of our mental resources and forces us to pay greater attention than ordinary, representational stories of the day-to-day.

In a world where the day-to-day assaults and surrounds us on television, on our phones, and on our computers, the allure of the fantastical is compelling. Maybe even necessary. It would explain why the speculative inspires so many hit movies, TV series, and books these days.

This is hardly revolutionary. We’ve long realized that children learn better when learning is mixed with play — and children are teaching themselves about the world when they invent their own styles of play. Songs, skits, and stories are entertaining and effective learning media.

And hey, if it’s good for the kids …

Dr. Isaac Asimov and the Art and Science of Writing

Dr. Isaac Asimov

I recently read two articles I thoroughly enjoyed and found inspiring. One is on Isaac Asimov’s approach to writing, and the other is “The Five-Step Manufacturing Process That Could Make You A Better Writer,” by Julian Bass, a Lecturer in Software Engineering at the University of Salford. Asimov, who had a PhD in chemistry from Columbia University, would’ve been intrigued by Bass’s engineering approach to writing.

These articles cross-pollinate, and should be read in their entirety. I’ll just give you a taste here.

I was particularly impressed with Bass’s approach, having once worked in the insurance industry as a methods analyst for continuous workflow improvement. Bass summarizes his approach to writing in five principles aimed at minimizing waste and increasing productivity. They evolved from the “Lean” engineering techniques based on Japanese manufacturing methods. Here are Bass’s writing principles:

Flow means to create a regular cycle of back-to-back creativity, a rhythm of finished writing projects.

Value: Good writing will communicate important ideas so that people want to absorb and enjoy them. So, you should try to write in a way that communicates your ideas and makes your audience feel excited, informed or entertained (or all three).

Waste: Finding the value is one thing, but how many projects have you started that ended up sitting on your desk or computer, ignored or forgotten about? That is exactly the kind of waste lean tries to avoid: partially finished work, half-formed ideas and wasted energy.

Pull: You should think of writing, much like manufacturing, as pulling a product towards completion. This means the highest priority writing projects are those nearest to being finished.

Perfection: My writing never achieves perfection, as you can probably tell. But I always trying to aim for quality improvement.

Compare that process to Isaac Asimov’s advice to writers:

Never stop learning – Read widely. Follow your curiosity. Never stop investing in yourself.

Don’t fight getting stuck – By stepping aside, finding other projects, and actively ignoring something, our subconscious creates space for ideas to grow.

Beware the resistance – Self-doubt is the mind-killer.

Lower your standards – Asimov was fully against the pursuit of perfectionism. Trying to get everything right the first time, he says, is a big mistake.

Make MORE stuff – Interestingly, Asimov also recommends making MORE things as a cure for perfectionism.

The secret sauce – A struggling writer friend of Asimov’s once asked him, “Where do you get your ideas?” Asimov replied, “By thinking and thinking and thinking till I’m ready to kill myself.”

It’s always fascinating to get a glimpse of how great minds work, and Isaac Asimov was truly one of the greats. Every piece Asimov wrote, fiction and non-fiction, displays his intellect, his boundless curiosity, and big heart.

Do we still need gatekeepers?

Jill Schoolman

Literary Hub has published Kerri Arsenault’s Interview With A Gatekeeper. The featured gatekeeper is Jill Schoolman, the founder and publisher of Archipelago Books.

The title echoes the ongoing (and sometimes noisy) dispute about the future of publishing. (Check out this online brawl, for example.) “Gatekeeper” is a noun full of baggage, often used derisively by those who insist the rise of self-publishing has made traditional publishing obsolete. But that would mean people such as Jill Schoolman no longer have anything of value for either readers or writers.

The Literary Hub interview highlights the unique and well-suited skills and insights Schoolman brings to her job. She studied film and literature in college, learned three languages, has lived and worked in three continents, and has done freelance film work.

All of which adds up to a good foundation for an editor, which requires both the specialist’s skill and the generalist’s grasp of a variety of subjects — but as the interview reveals early on, it takes much, much more:

KA: How does one learn to be an editor?

JS: You have to be a good reader, a good writer, and have a good ear. I think you also need to be a good listener. You have to listen to the writer’s voice and not impose your own voice on a text. Being a good translator is a similar craft: to be able to feel the spirit of the text and see what the writer is trying to do. When you start out editing, there’s a tendency to over-edit, to be a bit heavy-handed. But the more you edit, the more you grow to respect the text. You can also feel very quickly if you are not adept at it. It’s not for everyone.

Sound like someone you’d like to read and edit your work? I would. Even in this age of CreateSpace and other self-publishing venues, gatekeepers like Schoolman still fulfill a much-needed role for both the reader and writer. Here’s an excerpt from author Tina Ann Forkner’s article 5 Reasons You Should Still Pursue a Traditional Book Contract:

Vetting is important. Having a traditional novel proves your book has been vetted by the industry and that your writing has been found worthy. When it comes to bookstores carrying your books, being traditionally published is still the best proof that your book is professional, well-edited, and has a great story that readers will want to read. You can be vetted in other ways if you are self-published, but it isn’t easy. Having a traditional publisher is still the best route if you want a wider readership.

The traditional submission process makes your novel better. Sure, you are going to get rejected. I’ve been rejected my fair share, and so have J.K. Rowling and John Grisham, but if I had to go through all of that rejection again, I would do it. The great thing about the traditional submission process is that every time you are rejected, you have to revisit your manuscript and make it better before sending it out again. Revision is a great teacher, and I’ve learned a ton from editors who have rejected my work. If you still decide to go the self-publication route someday, you will be glad that your manuscript was read, critiqued, and rejected by editors who knew what they were doing.

Being traditionally published is a VIP Pass. If you manage to get traditionally published, it will be good for the rest of your career. Even if you self-publish or go with a small publisher later, as I have, you’ll be able to say that you were previously published by a large traditional publisher.

Forkner’s point is that there’s much writers can learn from traditional publishing. Don’t get me wrong — I think the rise of self-publishing is a big plus for writers. In fact, self-publishing is a rebirth of the way authors got their work out to a mass audience in the early days of the printing press. Who could argue against the independence and opportunity for greater earnings now available to writers? Plus, as James Scott Bell has pointed out, a writerpreneur who publishes some works traditionally AND self-publishes enjoys more income than those who exclusively self-publish. And, as in other artistic endeavors, greater income affords greater freedom of expression.

The takeaway of this debate is that great publishing freedom requires even greater pre-publication self-discipline.

Unbound II: Changed Worlds pre-release

Unbound II

From Science Fiction and Fantasy Publications:

Unbound II: Changed Worlds

The Unbound Anthologies are a collection of themed short stories perfect for your reading pleasure. Every year we open a call to authors around the world challenging them to create never before created works of fiction, pick the best ones, and bundle them together for you.

This edition, our authors received the challenge of “Changed Worlds” in the Science Fiction and Fantasy genre. And now we are pleased to present to you:

Michael Healy’s “Hail Bruce”
Daniel Powell’s “Reclaiming the Elements”
Clint Spivey’s “The Barred Gates”
Lee Clark Zumpe’s “Book of Being”
Dale L. Sproule and Sally McBride’s “The Birthing Blades”
Barry Charman’s “The Knot”
Philip Bran Hall’s “The Hard Stuff”
M. M. Pryor’s “The Witch’s Intern”
M. C. Tuggle’s “Hunting Ground”
K. T. Wagner’s “Mountains to Cross”
M. J. Moores’ “The Reckoning”

While this publication’s release date is January 31st, you may either pre-order the ebook through online retailers or acquire your digital version now through our online store at:

Buy Unbound II – Changed Worlds

Print versions of this anthology will be available through all bookstores January 31st, 2017.

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