Archive for May, 2014

Normal…Or Not?

I finished reading a science-fiction novel a few days ago, a book I enjoyed reading and highly recommend.  It’s called The Speed of Dark, by Elizabeth Moon, originally published in 2002.  The book concerns an autistic man (his name is Lou) who is given the chance to become “normal.”  That is, he can take advantage of a procedure that will remove his autism and make him like everyone else.  The chance to become “normal” is presented near the beginning of the book, and the majority of the book concerns Lou’s difficulty in deciding whether to take advantage of the treatment.  (I won’t give away the ending, I suggest you read the book and find out if he accepts it.)

Elizabeth Moon, I found out after I read the book, has an autistic child, and her knowledge of autism certainly shows in the structure of the plot.  She gets into the head of Lou in an exceptionally strong manner, and we are treated to a highly educated treatment of autism.  I know little about autism, but what goes through Lou’s head, at the very least, sounds realistic.  Lou is a part of a group of about six very high-functioning autistic people who work for a large corporation, but they have their own special section and do specialized work that “normal” people either can’t do or would have considerable difficulty doing.  Lou looks for patterns in materials presented to him on a computer screen, patterns that “normals” wouldn’t see, because he notices patterns in everyday life on a regular basis.  He lives by himself, drives a car, commutes to work daily, does his own shopping, and generally functions well in life’s routines.  Lou’s struggle to decide whether to take the treatment stems from the probability he would lose his pattern-recognizing ability.  He would become “normal.”

But as I read the book, that word, “normal” became somewhat of a problem for me.  I wondered if it was being used correctly in that sense, and that’s why I’ve been putting it in quotation marks.  To me, “normal” is an absolute.  Something or someone is either “normal” or he/she/it isn’t.  The other side of normal is “abnormal,” and the point was made in the book that Lou and his friends were certainly not “abnormal.”  They were neither  “normal” nor “abnormal.”  Lou got along with others well, and had many “normal” friends.  Clearly there’s a disconnect here.

The problem stems from the fact that humans, in terms of behavior and mental capacity, fall into a very broad spectrum, and there’s a very fuzzy line between normal and abnormal in that spectrum.  The term “normal” doesn’t allow for that spectrum.  I’m not a psychiatrist nor any sort of mental health worker, but schizophrenia is clearly “abnormal.”  Some schizophrenics can be totally in their own world and don’t react to our world at all.  But who’s to say someone like Lou is “abnormal?”  He certainly has abilities most of us don’t, but does that make him “not normal?”  I think the word “normal” is to blame for the problem.

My thesaurus defines “normal” as “common” or “usual” in one sense, and as “sane” or “rational,” in another.  It also gives other synonyms for normal, but I tend to gravitate toward “usual” or “average” as a better term than “normal” for Lou’s situation.  “Average” has quantitative connotations not present in “normal.”  “Normal” is so absolute; “average” implies a bell-shaped curve centered around a midpoint.  Lou isn’t “average,” and he would be well to one side of the midpoint, but he isn’t “abnormal.”  If we use the term “average,” it’s a lot easier to see where Lou, and other autistics, reside in relation to the rest of the population.  Normal doesn’t do that.  “Average” is what the treatment he struggles to decide about would make him.  It would bring him closer to that midpoint where the majority of us exist.

Are you “normal” or “average”?

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Married Or Single?

Something I’ve wondered about for a long time: why do we make a distinction between married women and single women in speech and writing?  That is, why do we use the separating terms “Miss” and “Mrs.”?  It doesn’t seem to have any real benefit to either the men or the women.  Especially since we don’t make the same distinction for men.  I can’t think of one reason why we need to know if a woman is married or single that doesn’t also apply to men.

Perhaps many thousands of years ago, there was a good reason women had to be distinguished by their marital status, but if there was, that distinction has been lost.  The separation is present in other languages, though, not just English.  For example, two languages I’m familiar with are German and Spanish.  In German, a single woman is a Fräulein, and a married woman a  Fräu.  In Spanish, a single woman is a Señorita, and a married woman a Señora.   I’m sure that other languages make the same separation, and it’s probably a world-wide convention which has been around for a long time.  But it’s a convention that has lost its usefulness and is outmoded and superfluous.  In today’s politically correct society, it’s even a bit sexist, and a little anti-feminist.

Men aren’t differentiated in the same way, why should women be characterized by their marital status?  The only separation of men into two different groups I’m familiar with is the old concept of addressing a boy under the age of 12 as “Master,” rather than “Mister.”  But that distinction is gone anyway, and it never was used much in the second-half of the 20th century, and especially not in the 21st.  That distinction was based on age, not marital status, and served to note a boy as compared to a man.  If we’re going to denote men by “Mr.,” let’s denote women by “Ms.” without regard to marital status.  (The plural of Ms. is apparently Mss.)  Yeah, I know Ms stands for “manuscript,” but that’s a duplication we’ll have to get used to.  It can also stand for “Master of Science,” “military science,” the state of Mississippi, and “multiple sclerosis.”  The salutation Ms is very good in one particular situation, ie, when you’re writing a letter to a woman and you don’t know her marital status.  Ms covers both situations.  For example, when I’ve written query letters to agents about my novels, I usually don’t know if the agent is married or single.  That is true for male agents as well as female.  But what difference does it make?  If it isn’t important to know if a male agent is married or single, why should it be important for a female?  Why should a literary agent–or anyone for that matter–be known for her/his marital status?

I’ve already started using “Ms.” in writing, though using it in speech may take a while longer to get used to and I think that’s a problem for many. For example, the First Lady of the United States is still known as “Mrs. Obama.”  But we should get rid of the pretense.  How do you feel about it?


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The Summer Movies

I had the occasion a few days ago to attend a meeting where the topic of discussion was a preview of some of the movies that will be coming out in the summer of 2014.  Only science-fiction movies were presented, and I didn’t count how many there were, but I figure there must have been about fifteen of them.  And they were all the same.

Don’t get me wrong, I certainly don’t mean that they were all exactly the same.  Not at all.   But in an overall sense, and in an creative sense, they were all very similar.  Each of the movies had what could be described as a common set of ingredients: an absolutely overwhelming reliance on special effects, an alien or a monster (sometimes one and the same), lots of loud noise, explosions, massive destruction of people and buildings, and, perhaps, very little acting of any consequence.  (I haven’t seen any of the movies, just the previews.)  It’s as though the producers of these films have found a single, almost unique, formula for sci-fi movies, and don’t want to do anything differently.  There was an overwhelmingly massive lack of imagination in what I saw.  Each preview just presented the same crappy story over and over.  Monsters/aliens, noise, explosions, special effects.  Over and over.  I couldn’t believe it.

There is nothing so simple and easy to write as a story about a monster that terrorizes some group of people, whether it’s one city, a continent, an entire planet, or the solar system.  It’s been done to death.  Throw in some special effects and you’ve got a movie.  And there is nothing more complicated than writing a script where the real monster is not a humongous, ugly creature, but the forces that reside inside all of us, where feelings and motivations exist.  A story where the thing the characters have to fear is themselves.  A conflict of wants and desires, of goods and evils, of ambitions and fears, of mania and depression, of yearnings and hungers, of fulfillments and satisfactions.  A story like that requires real creativity and ingenuity to put together, and that almost appears beyond today’s movie makers.  They’re stuck on one thing because it makes money for them at the expense of good taste and perception.  And money is how movies are rated nowadays.  Isn’t anyone going to make another Star Wars, A New Hope?  That show was more about imagination and internal conflict than it was about special effects.

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Well, I got back from the Pike’s Peak Writers Conference in Colorado Springs about a week and a half ago, and I thought I’d write down a few conclusions from the meeting.  There aren’t very many.

A good writer’s meeting, like the Pike’s Peak conference, has a lot going on, and that makes it hard for an attendee to decide what to take in at any one time.  You can’t go to all the presentations, unfortunately.  So I made a few choices and let it go at that.  I also had a chance to pitch my sci-fi novel to an agent, and that went well.  She asked me to send her the first 25 pages (which in my novel is the first two chapters plus a few pages into the third).  I sent those off only about six days after I got back, but haven’t heard from her yet.  Time will tell.

Most of the other presentations I went to were good and helpful, like the critique sessions where a writer reads the first page of his/her novel and it gets critiqued by an author/agent/publisher.  That’s good because it helps to know what they’re looking for.  Of the other lectures I went to, one in particular intrigued me enough to do a little research on it after I got home.  That was a discussion of “Theme.”

Do you know what “theme” is?  What’s the “theme” of your novel or of the last movie you saw?  How do you find out?  Most novels and movies and even short stories will have a theme, though it may be buried so deep you may have trouble finding it.  The moderator of that session defined theme as “the argument a story is making.”  While that is good and true, his definition left me unsatisfied and wanting more.  I began looking around.  First I consulted the dictionary.  “Theme” is defined as “(1a) a subject or topic of discourse or of artistic representation, and (1b), a specific and distinctive quality, characteristic or concern.”  Neither of those is any better than the definition the speaker gave at the meeting.  I still wanted more, but I was beginning to realize this term isn’t going to be easy to define.  It is one of those nebulous concepts that is hard to define, but “you know it when you see it.”  Here are some of my attempts to define “theme” in fiction.

Theme is the overriding broad concept that a story presents to the reader without directly stating it, but which can usually be expressed in a few words.

Theme is the meaning of the story; but more significantly, it’s the distillation of the meaning down to a few words.

Theme is the abstract idea expressed by the story independent of the characters, plot, setting, dialogue, and so forth.

Theme is not what the story is about.  That’s the plot.  Theme is what the story means.  It’s the broad, universal meaning behind the story.  A story is unique.  Generally, two people don’t write the same story.  Theme, on the other hand, is broad.  One theme can be applied to many stories.  For example, read “To Kill a Mockingbird.”  The theme is relatively easy to see there.  The story itself is one thing, but the theme is quite another.

Theme is the message the author is trying to present to the reader without actually saying it.  It’s what the author wants the reader to take away after he/she puts the book down.  It’s the take-home lesson.

That’s enough for now.  If you have a different definition of “theme,” I’d like to read it.

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