Tag Archives: library

In Loving Appreciation of the Story Swirl

OtherlandAs a reader, I have a lot of reverence for the cliffhanger. I think I am perhaps in the minority here. I can certainly remember a time when cliffhangers drove me crazy. Back when I was in junior high, I would anxiously (not boldly) go into the various Star Trek season finales, knowing they wouldn’t end well for my heroes and I’d likely suffer months of torment afterward waiting for the inevitable resolution come fall.

Now, an undisclosed number of years later? To put it mildly, I’ve changed my mind. I love cliffhangers. Love them! In movies, in books, in television series, in all their different forms. But we’re mostly talking about books here at the Fictorians, so I’ll continue in that vein. In particular, I love the way multiple storylines come crashing together in a maelstrom of calamity at the end of a book. I love how these storylines may seem unconnected—that is, until the disparate threads careen together like shoelaces tipped with metallic sheathes, all drawn irresistibility to a magnet (one of the strangest and most ineffective metaphors I’ve come up with, granted, but which I’ll fail to edit out only on account of its extreme curiosity). As a writer with a greater understanding of narrative and structure, I don’t often fall for this anymore, but I try to pretend I don’t foresee the adhesive “story swirl” that brings characters and plots together in fun, hopefully unexpected ways.

Nowhere has this been better executed than in Otherland: City of Golden Shadow, the first in Tad Williams’ Otherland trilogy (or rather, one of his patented tetralogies). I can remember exactly where I was when I first raced through the concluding chapters of that book. I was in my first year of university, secreted away in a quiet nook in one of the library’s upper-level alcoves; these alcoves were magnificent places, because you could spy down on people wandering the stacks unawares. Very little spying occurred that day, however, much to the delight, I’m sure, of the unsuspecting library populace (so far as a person ignorant of spying can be delighted that they are not in fact being spied upon), because I was engrossed. Tad Williams had my exclusive attention, and he held it in his unyielding grip of fiction prowess.

My carpool had deposited me at school about an hour before any of my classes started, so I had some time to read. But an hour was not enough time to get through the last 150 pages of the book. To this day, that’s an unprecedented amount of reading for me to accomplish in one day, never mind one sitting, as I typically do not read very quickly. My class’s start time approached, and I could not put the book down. I realize that is an oft-abused cliché in reading circles, and I don’t go to this particular well lightly. That well-worn paperback may as well have been cemented to my hand with skin-ripping crazy glue. My first-year psychology seminar could not compete. I stayed up in that alcove until I got to the last page of the book, and not a moment sooner. In fact, I only left quite a large number of moments later, since I had to sit silently in stunned, mandated appreciation for about half an hour after turning the last page.

That ending is a work of art which never fails to stimulate me, and I’ve subsequently read the story five or six times. It’s the classic “story swirl” effect I mentioned earlier. I fear spoiling this magnificent read with plot specifics, as my zealous desire is that this blog post will inspire you to search it out and experience it for yourself. Suffice to say that there are a large cast of characters, of different ages and ethnicities, in wildly divergent corners of the earth, in circumstances so unrelated that I could not imagine how they might conglomerate in the end. But they did, and it was (is) beautiful. I don’t think there has ever been a reader who got to the end of Otherland Volume One and then didn’t immediately flip into Otherland Volume Two, were it available. (Fortunately I did not have the second book available that day, else I would have missed several classes.) It would be like someone seeing Locutus of Borg declare war on the Federation at the end of “The Best of Both Worlds, Part One” and then say to herself, Meh, I don’t care what happens next. It has been scientifically proven that no such breed of human exists.

I dare you to prove me wrong. I dare you!

Take Me to Your Weeder

A guest post by Shelley Reddy.

Passages_Shelley Reddy

Two aliens walked into a library, and approached the front desk. “Hewwo, Wibrary Wand. Take us to your Weeder.”

I love that libraries are offering new ways for people to encounter stories and content. The library district where I work offers four online libraries, free music downloads, video streaming, language learning programs, virtual magazines, and over 300 free online classes –including courses on writing and publishing. Furthermore, the branches host workshops, e-publication seminars, author visits, as well as other programs. Those are a lot of opportunities for writers to improve their skills or connect with readers.

As a book lover and writer myself, I feel supremely lucky to be in such an environment. However, I’ve found that there are two great challenges to working in a public library.

  • I will never read all the stories that are out there –nor even all the great stories.
  • Libraries do not have enough room on the shelves or in the budgets for all the material which is being released into the world.

While the first is frustrating fact of life, the second creates a fundamental problem for libraries and their staff.

Like any reader, library staffs love stories, engaging characters, and the way writers spin worlds from varying combinations of a mere twenty six letters. We firmly believe that there is a book for every reader, and a reader for every book. The archivist in us treasures the ability to preserve the stories and match their authors with readers. However, when the books keep coming in and circulation slumps, the books sit, waiting like the residents of the Island of Misfit Toys.

Eight months ago, we had this problem in our large-print section. The books – built up over years of healthy budgets- were so numerous, and packed so tightly together, that it was nearly impossible to pull a title off the shelf. Many popular items were on the lowest shelves, forcing our most elderly patrons to bend or kneel to find them. The shelves themselves were located in the darkest portion of the building –which hadn’t been a problem when half-empty shelving allowed sunlight to filter through. We didn’t have a way to showcase the amazing titles and authors in our collection. For our readers, the wonderful adventures they wanted to experience were lost –buried amongst the blurred, shadowed mass of text and color.

Something had to change. In library land, we call the process of choosing what not to keep “weeding”, and it is a battle for the soul as much as for inches of clear territory. If you ever had holes seared into your jeans in an Arizona July while crouched on burning gravel engaging in tug-of-war with mutant dandelion roots that may well survive nuclear holocaust and overtake the planet… you understand. For the beginning library professional, weeding is an alien, uncomfortable process. The Archivist in our soul battles with the Grim Reaper’s devotion to the big picture.

“It won an award,” the Archivist begs. “It changed the way we view prosaic noun development.”

“No one’s read it in twelve years. There’s more dust on it than King Tut’s tomb. Let it go.”

“But it won the Nobel! The movie was adored by critics, and it’s only eleven months until the Oscars. It could be in a display…”

“The movie came out five years ago, the critics were the only ones to embrace it, and you have two copies that haven’t been touched. Let it go.”

And -unless we want to appear on a future spin-off of Hoarders- the Archivist usually must acquiesce. In time, we learn to merge those different personalities –Archivist, Entertainer, Promoter, Reaper, Teacher- into one vision and one voice. Even so, each time I go out to the shelves, I am girding myself for battle -with the collection, and with myself.

As hard as weeding can be, however, I’ve found it to be one of the most essential skills a librarian –and a writer- can possess. The ability to step back and take a look at the larger picture, analyze the weakest points, and either strengthen those struggling elements or –if necessary- remove them, is essential to presenting a stronger, more tailored and unified whole.

In writing, extraneous characters appear from the ether and run off with the plot just when the action is building. We are introduced to a mass of characters that all have similar, strange names, forcing us to stop in the middle of the climactic battle and ask “Wait… Is Oleo the alien prince, or Ollea? Or Olyvan?” We struggle to find the critical message of the piece amongst the bright, bubbling, endless –and ultimately circular- analysis of the main character’s daughter’s friend’s shoes.

We all have scenes and sentences we love. We birth them, shelter them, dote on them and sing their accomplishments to the world. Sometimes, however, as the story grows and changes, that scene or character or bit of dialogue that we love just doesn’t work the way we expect. It drags the pacing, weakens our characters, and provides irreconcilable plot challenges. We scold it, shift it, stare at it in consternation, and wonder why it just won’t play with the rest of the group.

Sometimes, as hard as it can be, we must accept those story elements for what they are and stop trying to force them into our vision of how we want them to sing in our magnum opus. Adopt the eyes of the alien –the outsider, the foreigner, the expert critic. Look at your creation and analyze what does and doesn’t work. Ask yourself why it isn’t working. Then change it.

In the library, we recently overhauled our struggling collection. We removed the underperforming, the damaged, and the extraneous. We reorganized the structure so readers didn’t have to stand on their heads to identify the gems. Amazing stories and characters created by wonderful authors now had space in which to shine. Our readers loved it. Yours will, too.

In the library, and in my own writing, the weeding process continues. There may be a mutant dandelion or two, but fortunately I work in a library. I’m sure there’s a cookbook around here with a recipe for dandelion stew…

Two aliens walked into a library… it sounds like the start of an interesting journey.

Shelley Reddy picShelley Reddy Bio:
Like many authors, Shelley Reddy has been a bibliophile and library lover since a young age. A paraprofessional with the Queen Creek library in Arizona, she currently is working on her next book.