Junk Food Literature

I want to talk about something I call “Junk Food Literature”.

Wait, don’t leave; I’m serious, and its a good thing!

Have you ever in your life shunned a book for being “completely awful, and horribly written”, refused to read a book because it was “beneath your level”, or read a book in secret because other people had a negative opinion of it? Congratulations, you’ve experienced Junk Food Literature.

Just like junk food, it’s not always the best thing, but there is something satisfying about it. Delicious potato chips, fizzy bittersweet soda, that luscious chocolate candy bar, the siren song of a greasy burger loaded with ‘secret sauce’ and melty cheese… Sometimes we can’t resist, and it’s OK–life can’t be kale and cauliflower salads all the time!

…I was joking. Why is this a real thing?!

When you boil it down to basics, we tend to sort books into two categories: “enlightening” and “drivel”. It’s the same manner in which we separate “healthy food” and “junk food”. Junk Food Literature usually falls into the “drivel” category by most standards, but what people don’t realize is that it has its place! People’s book interests are as diverse as the difference between the person who eats all Paleo, and the person who eats nothing but fast food. Sometimes the reasons are the same–maybe Paleo Guy has time to sit down and enjoy a dry non-fiction novel, while Fast Food Girl only has time to read something short, and happens to like vampire romance.

But then, Fast Food Girl might go on vacation, eat completely vegetarian local fare, and pick up a memoir to peruse at the beach. Meanwhile Paleo Guy decides he’s really in the mood for sugary lemon bars and a quick murder mystery while hanging out at a coffee shop downtown.

Great–now I want lemon bars AND I’m wondering what happened to those “The Cat Who…” mysteries I used to read in high school…

We judge people based on what they read. [or don’t read] Hell, we judge people based on everything! Things are never as clear cut as we want them to be, and while we’re evolved enough to know we shouldn’t do it, we’re also basic enough to still do it despite that. We’re told to not eat junk because its bad. Fat makes things taste better, and helps you process some vitamins, so butter and oils have their time and place. Conversely, spinach will sometimes sneak into your fruit smoothie; you’ll read something just for the hell of it, but come away with a revelation about life and people you never had before reading that book. I love when that happens. It’s like a little bonus. [Avocado on your burger? Hell yes!]

In all honesty it’s more like guacamole on this burger than just avocado but it’s still freaking good. Of course this is Whataburger; I live in TEXAS!

Enjoyment is what makes Junk Food Literature good–just as viable as standard literature–and why we need it so desperately. It often sweeps people up, becoming its own phenomenon and drawing people together through a shared experience. Even when a book is reviled, it still brings people together. Isn’t uniting people through words the cornerstone of all forms of storytelling? In a world where literacy rates aren’t at their best, should we really knock people for what they read?  We should celebrate people reading for pleasure, even if it is a Paranormal Victorian Dinosaur Romance novella and your personal opinion is that it should be set on fire.

Art by Adam Mazur
It’s the damn salad all over again!

Junk Food Literature is a fun romp, sometimes inexplicably popular–and yes, often not written as well as it could be. Reading it won’t make you stupid, just like slogging through one of the literary classics won’t make you smart, or occasionally having some chips or a slice of cake won’t immediately make you unhealthy. Reading should be a pleasure–not a chore or a form of stress.

All the signs of an enjoyable book!

Lemon bars, anyone?

Seeing the Forest For the Trees

I was writing a scene in the new volume of Atlantis: TVC, and everything was going great–until I had to describe the Reidell Forest. This is not an inconsequential forest; it takes up a third of the eastern half of the continent, and a decent portion of volume two takes place there. My fingers came to a screeching halt, and I consulted the giant thirty-eight page behemoth that is my reference file for this series.

I had jotted down what kind of climate Atlantis has, along with some details about the flora and fauna that could be found there that were common to other parts of the world, but yet I was still at a loss to describe what specific kind of trees were in that particular forest. All I knew was that they should be evergreen, and I didn’t want to make up an indigenous species because it felt disingenuous.*
An hour later, I had scoured my options and decided on two kinds of trees that met all my criteria; they fit the climate, they were evergreen, and they were tall enough to be as impressive as I wanted them to be.

Was this important? Did people need to know about the trees so much that I devoted an hour of my time to it? Was I not seeing the forest for the trees?

I don’t know. I’ll never know.

I do know that I don’t regret doing it. I’ve learned over the years that I enjoy reading stories where the world is built slowly through tiny snippets of almost dismissible dialogue, and small, careful details like what types of trees grew in the forest. Since I enjoy writing the way I read, knowing the type of trees was important to me both as an author and a reader.

One of the big movements in writing right now is to trim. When in doubt, cut it out. Adjectives are bad; pare everything down to its bare minimum components.

I blame Twitter

I don’t know about you, but I don’t enjoy writing like that, or reading writing like that. Fans of it claim it is the superior way to write, as it leaves everything up to the imagination of the reader. On a forum I frequent, I often see aspiring and established authors saying that they don’t give much detail on their character’s appearances or the settings of their world due to this reasoning. The number one thing cited in support of this is a variant of, “The reader is just going to imagine them how they want to anyway.” They compete with one another, vying to be the most vague, thinking that it is something to aspire to because it is the popular thing to do.**

To me, that’s like cooking a piece of chicken, adding no seasoning, then telling the person eating that you didn’t season it so that they could pretend that it tasted like whatever they wanted.

Yes, meat is good by itself; it does have a specific flavor all its own. But when you add seasonings, they are supposed to enhance the flavor, not mask it. This is the balance that needs to be struck between Tolkien’s pages of waxing poetic about the forests of Middle Earth, and modern authors simply stating, “They went into the forest.”

The latter certainly tells us only the essential information–it’s that thing with trees and stuff. We can reasonably assume it’s not the ocean, or a meadow. We’re set; let’s go!

Probably filled with magical wish granting fairies!

But, what kind of forest is it? Is it a dark, silent forest, nestled in the foothills of some misty mountain region? Is it a bright forest on the edge of a meadow, filled with chirping birds and awash with rays of sunlight streaming in through the branches? These are definitely two different kinds of forests. What happens if the reader imagines the second forest, but then is yanked out of immersion when the current character is attacked by vampires? [Vampires are still popular, right? If not they can be attacked by evil dictators–I hear those are all the rage these days.]

You are slain by King Tyrant of Dystopiaworld

People read stories to be immersed in the world, to be invested in the characters and their tale. I feel that bare prose is detrimental to this process because it makes the reader pause as their subconscious constructs its own descriptions from scratch, which slows everything down. If an author expands–even a little–and uses the right words, it will tap into previously constructed concepts and evoke not only a stronger mental image, but will do it more efficiently. This allows readers to retain their immersion, and thus interest in your story; and who doesn’t want people interested in their stories?

I understand that readers [and authors] have different tastes, and that writers hoping to strike it big will follow popular trends. That’s true of any era; today’s horrible books are tomorrow’s classics. [I can say this with certainty because I know history repeats itself.] But when aspiring authors are steered towards writing one particular way, to the exclusion–and even detriment–of all others, it really irks me.

It’s like not seeing the trees for the forest, and that’s just weird.


* I swear I didn’t do that on purpose, but now that it’s done, I like it, so I left it. [Even though it could be confusing when read.]

** I can’t stop doing this…

Plot Twist!

There are scenes in my story that I often can’t wait to get to. I will mull over these scenes while I’m cooking, showering, failing to sleep; re-writing and defining them in my head until it’s finally time for one of them in the story. I’ll be excited, nervous, eager–fingers flying over the keys as words spill from my head onto the previously blank page.

At least, that’s what typically happens.

Sometimes instead, I’ll decide to stop the previous day’s writing just before one of these scenes. I might do it to prolong the excitement and anticipation, to make me eager to dive right in the next day, or maybe I want a night to go over it one more time in Brainspace, before it goes from images to words. In this instance, it was the latter; I wanted to let it percolate overnight as I was tired, and writing tired [for me] results in some strange prose.

Unfortunately, in that small window of time, something drastic can happen, and everything will come screeching to a halt– like the combination of a writer, a full laundry basket, and a piece of paper that combines to form… a sprained wrist.

So I get to have my arm stuck in a brace for two weeks, and I can assure you that it is not conducive to typing in the slightest. In fact, this post was a test to see if typing one-handed would be in any way feasible. I can assure you that it is not. Also, I have nerve damage in my right arm, so this was my good arm. It seems that I get to play Life on Hard difficulty for the next fourteen days!

Maybe I can take this time to finally nail down some character designs for the new characters in Volume #2. If not then I can always catch up on my reading. I remember seeing a few things on sale on Amazon that piqued my interest…

[or I could lurk the fantasy writing forums on Reddit, but that is what I normally do…]


The Magic of Ink and Paper*

* Or a LCD and pixels if you’re into e-books. I won’t judge–except to say that e-books don’t smell nearly as nice as a dead tree copy does.

I remember my first fantasy series. I was in middle school when my best friend handed me a large hardcover novel and said, “You have to read this. It’s really good!” [Or something along those lines; it was eighteen years ago after all.]

That book was Guardians of the West, by David [and Leigh!] Eddings.

It was the beginning of summer vacation, and I already had a very bad habit of consuming books. Until then, I had read fantasy-themed books, but never a series. It was a thick book, [honestly looking back I think it was only 300 pages, ha ha!] but I cracked it open and didn’t come up for air until it ended.

But… there’s more?” I thought, looking at the dust jacket. ‘Book one of the Mallorean’ was finely printed under the title. I was thrilled in a completely new way–I needed to get my hands on those books!

Since then, I have read most of the Eddings’ work. Through those books I discovered that I love a long series. For starters, the character development has room to breathe. I get to see characters grow and change over time, and figure out their motivations. In stand alone novels, you often get a few paragraphs that beat you over the head with the personality and the purpose of the character. Then you read the story. As I get further into writing, I have discovered that the latter example is a ‘tell’ kind of style, which tends to bog down a narrative. I thought it was just the way books were written–I had a great epiphany with my first Eddings book! [I also just now realized that this is probably the reason I’m not too fond of movies. It’s difficult for a movie to tell a satisfying story in such a short length of time unless it’s based on something people are already familiar with.]

Secondly, I get to spend more time with these well-developed characters, which makes them kind of like friends. I was with them through thick and thin! I cared about their well-being; I was emotionally invested! As an aspiring author, this is something I can only hope to achieve.

I’m talking about you, you rat-faced Drasnian… *teenage self swoons*

Books have always been my drug, in a very literal sense–when I received that book from my friend, I was four years removed from a bad situation where I had to read to escape my dismal everyday life. I had read because I didn’t want to be where I was. I had read because it dulled the pain. I had read because–in a strange act of rebellion–the person who made my childhood into a confusing hell did not want me to. I read at an advanced level. At the beginning of the new school year I would steal my cousins’ middle/high school science, history, and English textbooks [never math; it’s always been my weak point] and read them for fun with a flashlight under the covers in my room.

I would sneak into that person’s room and smuggle her Reader’s Digest Condensed Books out to read… books like Finder’s Keepers [Barbara Nickolae] and Circle of Pearls [Rosalind Laker] were my first ‘grown-up’ [serious] books. When I had a reprieve to go visit my grandmother on weekends I’d read her romance novels, and she’d warn me: “Careful! Those are sexy books!”. I still have no idea if that was an admonishment to skip the ‘sexy’ parts, or if she was warning me about it in case it wasn’t my taste. [I was a preteen; ‘sexy books’ were most certainly my taste!]

I’m quite sentimental about things; as an adult I combed the local library’s used bookstore every time I went, specifically looking amongst the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books anthologies for a specific teal spined volume that contained reprints of both the books I mentioned above. After six years of diligence, it finally showed up! It’s packed away in a box currently, but it’s a treasured possession that reminds me of the immense power books can have. They protected me like a shield when I needed them most.

Nowadays I visit them for a brief vacation, or to relax, because I have that luxury. [Especially when I get a chance to leave the two year-old with Daddy and hide in the bathtub. Books+Bath=Love!] I still enjoy reading immensely, and I still go for the large series; Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels and G.R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series are some of my current favorite reads, along with the occasional translated Light Novel. [I’m currently on volume four of Log Horizon! Loving it!]

Right now I can only hope to follow in the footsteps of  those who came before me–authors whose books I’ve loved. I dream of someday writing something good enough that people will say, “I want to go to that place. I want to go there and see my friends.”