In writing and in life, “caveat emptor”

Recently I’ve come across a number of Facebook and blog posts sharing information of questionable accuracy. Some of it was definitely erroneous while other bits were extrapolated from a shaky premise. Those who shared, unknowingly believed they were doing others a favour. I’m not sure why I let it bother me, but it makes me gnash my teeth at how gullible people can be.

Since childhood we’re cautioned not to believe everything we read. Television news and advertisements warn of scam artists and e-mail phishing schemes. Yet false claims continue to circulate and people continue to be fooled.

One thing the internet has done is allow every ‘Tom, Dick and Harry’ to have their say, instantly, and in a very public way, on a blog, in Twitter or Facebook posts, advertisements or e-mail messages. Because a person promotes himself as an expert doesn’t make him one. Because someone states something with apparent conviction, doesn’t make it true.

Stellers Looking

“What? You don’t believe I’m a crow? I just need a haircut and my roots touched up a bit. Of course I’m a crow!”

I think we tend to be lazy consumers, whether it’s of information or products. We trust government agencies to test the safety of almost everything; we assume the CRTC filters out misleading TV commercials; we believe everything on Wikipedia is accurate; we think everyone in cyberspace has our best interests at heart. It just isn’t so!

The “caveat emptor”* admonition applies to more than purchasing items. I look at my shelves of books on the craft of writing, realize how different some of the advice is, and wonder what I should believe. Which ‘expert’ should be followed? There are templates for how a story should unfold, tips for making characters come alive, suggestions for fleshing out settings or cutting down on description, advocates both for and against using prologues and epilogues. Who’s right?

In critique groups we say that any suggestion for a manuscript change is the opinion of the critic. If only one person in the group makes the suggestion, it can be evaluated and discarded if desired. However, if several people make the same observation or suggestion, weight is added to its importance and it shouldn’t be disregarded without a valid reason. I believe the same criteria can be applied to more general writing advice.

If a certain method of writing produces a bestseller for one author, there is no guarantee it will do the same for another. We each bring our individuality and unique abilities to our writing along with our own slant on plot, characters and setting and our own style. Focusing on the work and advice of other successfully published authors is valuable, but still needs to be done while filtering the material through the lens of our common sense. On the other hand, if the person offering advice is a self-made expert, perhaps we need to put some effort into researching its validity.

How do you determine the usefulness of available advice and information?

* Let the buyer beware

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Writing ‘ho-hum’ fiction

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Vancouver is the city of my birth. Its population today is much larger than it was all those years ago, but even then I considered it big. Still, my parents never hesitated to let me roam our neighbourhood to play with friends in the evening darkness, or as a young teenager to take a city bus into the downtown core by myself for weekly dance and baton lessons.

It wasn’t that crime didn’t exist. I recall hearing of a body being found in a wooded vacant lot next to my primary school — a lot in which most of us regularly played hide-and-seek games during recess and lunch hours. I was in Grade Three, and for the remainder of that school year there were more than the usual reminders not to talk to strangers. The P.A.C. had the lot cleared as a precaution, but the murder was seen as an exception… an isolated event.

Approaching Vcr 2

As I returned to the mainland from Vancouver Island via ferry earlier this week, the setting sun bathed the city in a rosy glow. But no amount of ‘viewing through rose coloured glasses’ can eliminate the statistics that prove how much it has changed over the years. It is now an area of about 2.3 million inhabitants — the third most populated metropolitan area in Canada. While it ranks as one of the top places worldwide for livability, there are also more homicides — to date in 2013 34 of them in the metro Vancouver area — as well as organized crime and drug-related gang activities.

It’s a beautiful city, but high-density living in the twenty-first century has its drawbacks. Many Vancouverites lock their doors even when they are at home, accompany children to and from all their activities, and never go for walks alone in secluded areas, especially at night. Although people don’t live in fear, nevertheless suspicion and caution are frequent bywords of our time. “You can’t be too careful.”

This week I was passing through Vancouver on my way home. I no longer live in the city, but when I consider how much things have changed in half a century, I understand why people are drawn to historical novels, seeing them in an almost nostalgic light. There has always been crime in the world, but we tend to believe earlier generations enjoyed a simpler, safer lifestyle.

Which brings me to my writing application. You knew there would be one, right? My genre isn’t historical fiction, although I occasionally enjoy reading it. Whatever I read, I respect authors who thoroughly research the eras in which their stories take place and whose characters and setting feel authentic.

Unfortunately there are some who are writing contemporary fiction, only because it’s what they know. They might believe no research is necessary, but in my opinion contemporary fiction requires a broad knowledge of present-day lifestyles. For instance, with over fifty percent of Vancouver’s residents having a first language other than English, it is one of the most ethnically and linguistically diverse cities in Canada.  Even when our personal lives might be limited in experience and exposure, our characters may need thorough researching to be realistic in today’s society.

If we aren’t careful, writing “what we know” could tell our readers we’re lazy writers!

Do you read or write contemporary fiction? What keeps some stories from coming across as ‘ho-hum’?

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Can writing fiction change reality?

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Anger hurts. Anger reacts and retaliates. Anger consumes like fire among tinder.

Anger rages in so many parts of our world. Wars and political uprisings, invasions, murder and brutality spill from one country to another and onto our own city streets. An ostrich approach is tempting except we know anger won’t disappear just because we shield our eyes from it. In fact, if we’re not paying attention it can overtake us like a wildfire.

There is an ad for Amnesty International on television right now, showing three hooligans beating a young man. As they raise rifles to shoot him, they discover the eyes of the camera recording the incident and, conscious of being seen, lower their weapons and walk away. The caption suggests public awareness makes a difference. But does it make enough of a difference?

Awareness is a first step, but awareness that doesn’t result in action is ineffective. Without action there won’t be change.  And that completes the circle, because without change there is more frustration, more anger.

Like smoldering peat, creeping subsurface after a fire, the underlying causes of anger are hard to extinguish.

Helplessness is infuriating. Sometimes I wish for the days of ignorance, where television and newspapers didn’t invade my life with images and information reflecting hate. Did all the publicity perpetuate it, or has it always existed but without such widespread recognition?

Works of non-fiction document the truth that surrounds us. Fiction creates worlds where truth becomes whatever we want it to be. Sometimes I am asked why I choose to write fiction, and the only answer I can verbalize is that I want to create a happily ever after. I wish it for everyone but can only make it happen for my characters. That’s better than nothing.

What motivates the kind of stories you choose to write?

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EYES OF ELISHA: A Book Review and Giveaway

Author Jeanette Levellie and I made a deal. She had committed to reviewing EYES OF ELISHA for Brandilyn Collins but then discovered it wasn’t her “cup of Starbucks”. What to do? It was a dilemma solved by finding someone else who met the same criteria that had initially won her the book, and I ended up being that person:

  1. I had never read a Brandilyn Collins novel before;
  2. I agreed to review it on my blog; and
  3. I will pass it on to someone else who fits ( 1.) above.

If you’ve never read a Brandilyn Collins novel before and, after reading my review, think you’d like to read EYES OF ELISHA, please leave a comment with your name before 9:00 a.m. PST this Friday, February 12th. I’ll make the draw and post the winner’s name at noon Friday.

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I’ve explained before that I don’t read a lot of Christian fiction. I’m just not into the syrup and slop that characterized my first experiences. Granted, that was decades ago and more recently I’ve found a few Christian authors whose novels I do enjoy. Brandilyn Collins has just become one of them.

From the back cover of EYES OF ALISHA I read, “The murder was ugly. The killer was sure no one saw him. Someone did.“ This didn’t sound like a typical Christian novel to me… and it isn’t.

Like many of us, Chelsea Adams is a Christian living in a secular society where violence happens and visions handed down from God are viewed with skepticism. When she experiences a victim’s last moments in a terrifying vision, Chelsea is compelled to report the murder to the police, but they have neither a body nor evidence of a crime. Using her vision as a guide, she locates the body and an investigation begins that puts more lives in jeopardy, including hers.

Brandilyn Collins manages to combine high suspense with Christian values, treating both with convincing honesty. There is no simplistic moralizing or Bible-thumping evangelizing, just faith, everyday realism, and a nerve-jangling mystery.

I’d rate this a strong four out of five and recommend it to anyone who loves an exciting story. And if you haven’t read any of Brandilyn’s novels and think you’d like to read this one, just let me know. I’ve already provided the review so if your name is drawn you get to sit back and just enjoy the read.

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EYES OF ELISHA

Zondervan (2001)

ISBN 10: 0-310-27532-6

ISBN 13: 978-0-310-27532-9

Discussing (Not Smoking) Marijuana

If you don’t want to get into trouble at a social gathering I’m told you should avoid discussing politics and religion. Try tossing in the subject of legalizing marijuana!  Now that’s controversial.

 

All drug laws in Canada are under federal jurisdiction, which means the provinces can’t change them. But don’t tell that to the people who periodically demonstrate on downtown Vancouver streets. They don’t want to hear it while they use the event as an opportunity to flaunt the law and smoke pot.

 

A recent Angus Reid Strategies poll resulted in a Vancouver Sun headline announcing that “65 per cent in B.C. want marijuana to be legalized”. It takes a moment to discover that it was an online poll of 822 people, thus just 534 people in a province of 4,146,000 who actually said, when asked if they thought the legalization of marijuana would reduce violence related to the drug trade, that it probably would.

 

I’m not disputing it might. Nobody really knows. Neil Boyd, a criminologist at Simon Fraser University, points out in the article that if marijuana were legalized and regulated it would be “safer to buy and sell pot.” He added, “Still, since marijuana is illegal worldwide, the theory has never been tested.”

 

No, it hasn’t, and I for one hope Canada never becomes the testing ground. Gang violence is vile, but it was about money long before drugs like marijuana became popular. Legalize marijuana and, while that will please those who smoke it, the violence will simply shift and continue to be about money from another source.

 

Do I think that 65% of my neighbours favour legalizing marijuana? No, and I think such polls are dangerously misleading. I also think those who use such headlines contribute to media sensationalism.

 

But I’m told that’s another controversial subject best avoided if you don’t want to get into trouble.

Real Life Murder Story

Guns and gangs, murder and mayhem — it sounds like the makings of another great murder mystery, except this time it’s real life in the Fraser Valley during the past two weeks.

 

Three infamous gangster brothers, Jonathan, Jarrod and Jamie Bacon, are linked to a drug gang known as the Red Scorpions. They live in Abbotsford, BC, under camera surveillance by the RCMP who have also issued a warning to the community “to steer clear of the Bacons, their family and friends” because rivals have been killing their associates, one by one, in locations around the lower mainland.

 

People are being shot down in apartment buildings, outside restaurants, in shopping malls, and innocent bystanders are being caught in the crossfire. It feels surreal. But how our communities are proposing to deal with it is just as bizarre.

 

In Langley where the most recent incident took place, the mayor in a TV news interview said that stopping the violence is “a legislative thing.” The brother-in-law of one of the victims thinks along the same lines, saying “[Attorney-General] Wally Oppal had better do something about it now.” On talk radio yesterday I heard a caller say, “Parliament has to outlaw the use of illegal firearms.” Oh, sure… just tell the gangs their weapons are illegal and no doubt they’ll hand them right over.

 

I can’t believe they think the solution is that simple. If it were, our communities would have been violence-free centuries ago. While I don’t know what the answer is, I know it won’t be discovered by expecting someone else to find it.