Unleash the Power of “What if…”

Ghosts don’t haunt us. That’s not how it works. They’re present among us because we won’t let go of them.
Sue Grafton

I watched a Hallmark Christmas movie yesterday. It was called “A Family for Christmas” and focused on a successful career woman plagued by “what if”. What if she had not gotten on the plane 10 years ago and instead had remained and married her sweetheart.

That movie couched “what if” as a Christmas wish, but “what if” could just as easily be a Christmas ghost as in “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens. Christmases past, present and future, all embodied by “what if…”

“What if” is full of possibilities. It’s not about changing the past, which is impossible, but about changing the future. It’s about taking a chance, a leap of faith, and building the future you want. As writers we do this all the time. We envision a world and build it, exploring, creating better places, unraveling problems, probing characters, situations and times outside our own routine. Often, our own “what if” involves finishing the scene, chapter or book. So, if you’ve started writing a book, what if you finished it? What if you then finished another?

In 2016, I challenge you to explore your own “what ifs”. What if you took the class that could change your career, learned something new, started exercising, or yes, finished that novel? In one year, working one step at a time, you can achieve that goal. In hindsight, today’s hurdles won’t seem so daunting.

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How Jane Austen Changed the World

Okay. While Jane Austen didn’t change the world singlehandedly, she certainly contributed. But the point remains, fiction can change the world, one reader at a time.

Austen brought the situation of gentlewomen in the 19th century to a popular audience. Before you can say “poor little rich girls,” consider this early scene in Sense and Sensibility:

Elinor Dashwood: You talk of feeling idle and useless. Imagine how that is compounded when one has no hope and no choice of any occupation whatsoever.
Edward Ferrars: Perhaps Margaret is right… Piracy is our only option.

For women of that age, marriage was the instrument to secure their future. Austen used the drawing rooms and ball rooms of 19th century England to make her point of injustice against women.

Throughout Austen’s books, social mores were used to enforce dynastic marriages, to transfer property from widows to male relatives, to limit opportunity. Yes, women could become governesses or could work, but not without losing their social standing. The term ‘genteel poverty’ too often applies.

By bringing this situation to popular attention at the beginning of the century, it gradually became an issue. By the end of that century and the early part of the next, suffragettes were marching in the streets for women’s rights.

I won’t say Jane Austen was the original feminist, but her works certainly contributed to a movement. Today, the plight of her heroines is unthinkable among a generation of women with careers and resources of their own.

So yes, fiction can spawn movements. Fiction can change the world, one reader at a time.
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Spoilers: Good, Bad or Irrelevant?

In the weeks leading up to the StarWars release, avoiding the trailers has become an active sport for my college age sons. They want to preserve the magic of seeing the scenes for the first time, in context, in the cinema – not on a PC, smart phone or tablet, disassociated from the larger story.
I’m the opposite. Trailers and spoilers don’t bother me. Much.
They do reduce the pleasure of a book of movie, but only somewhat, according to recent study in Communication Research (http://crx.sagepub.com/content/42/8/1068). Specifically, they were rated as less though-provoking, less suspenseful and less likely to transport readers to the story’s world.
In contrast, an earlier, 2011 study (http://pss.sagepub.com/content/22/9/1152) found that spoilers actually enhanced the pleasure of the story. So which is it?
The different results of those two studies may be geographic – the 2015 study was conducted in the Netherlands, the 2011 study in California – or reflect changing perceptions. What we used to find interesting has become annoying.
The researchers, however, attributed the results to differences among readers. Those who want to be immersed in a story avoid spoilers. Those who don’t need the emotional impact of a story or who don’t need to challenge themselves to unravel the plot don’t mind – or even enjoy – spoilers.
Follow-up research is being planned. For the meantime, the message to writers and publicists is clear: Be careful what you reveal!