Jan 27 2013

Happenstance … Luck

Melissa Crytzer Fry

A few weeks ago, I thought I was doing my husband a favor by pulling Betty into a different stall under the breezeway so that his work vehicle could fit in one of the bays. But when I shut off the engine, I heard an ominous hiss. Thinking something was wrong with the motor, I re-started the Jeep, moved forward a tad, and shut it off. And again: hisssss. Louder.

Did I mention that I suck under pressure? (Don’t ask about the time I caught the microwave on fire). So I ran to the house, grabbed my phone and called dearest husband: “I think the engine’s blowing! What do I do? Should I move Betty down by the wash so the house doesn’t catch fire?”

He says, calmly, “Go out and see if it’s still making the noise.” Of course I’m afraid to go near it because I just KNOW it will blow up in my face. Phone in hand, I walk tentatively toward Betty, then start to laugh. Then frown. Then whisper a few expletives. The hissss, was this:

Within mere minutes, the tire – with its blown sidewall – was flat, and Betty was lopsided… and disabled.

The irony of this story is that Betty hadn’t moved an inch since the holidays, when I’d last parked her (following a trip with an adventurous 70-something year-old friend from Chicago, along the remote San Pedro):

This is one of my favorite vistas in the desert. Click to enlarge.

That tiny patch of dirt at the right is the road my friend and I had driven during the holidays. Click to enlarge.

So, yes, when I realized I’d been driving on dried-out tires – hoping to get just a little more life from them – I was struck by reality: things could have been worse. The tire could have blown along the San Pedro River (where, mind you, we passed only a few cars). This was pretty much all we saw:

Three horses grazing (one is off camera). Click to enlarge.

I have wanted to photograph this trailer for years. Its tired sag, its rusty walls, and the vast expanse of desert mountains in the background give some indication of how far off the beaten path we were. Click to enlarge.

The geologic formations in this area are breathtaking. Click to enlarge.

Yeah … I’ll take luck any day – especially since the spare tire isn’t a correct fit and I haven’t changed a tire since I was 21. Oh yeah, and paying for the new shoes wasn’t much of a picnic either. But still…

For Writers & Readers: Happenstance. Luck. Serendipity. Those moments happen to us in real life. We may forget about them moments after they occur, shrug them off as coincidence. In fact, we won’t remember all of those incidents in our lifetimes, but we do accept them.

Yet in fiction, we’re less accepting of Lady Luck. Consider the movies you’ve watched and the books you’ve read – how, when luck intervenes, your first response is: How convenient. How predictable. How boring.

The best fiction transcends life. Just because “it really happened that way” (you argue to your critique group), doesn’t mean it makes for good fiction. Just ask a reader. Characters are most appealing when luck isn’t on their side, when they’re bumbling, stumbling and grasping.

So if I’d been writing the script of Betty’s blown tire, you can bet it would have been more calamitous than what really happened. In this case, however, thank goodness for real life … because, on the trek home from the San Pedro drive, we were on a winding, mountainous, guardrail-less highway, traveling at 60 MPH.

Can you think of an instance in your life when happenstance – luck – protected you or even led to something great and unexpected? Do you recall a particular book or movie that failed to wow you because of lucky circumstances that seemed too contrived?

Jan 21 2013

Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover

Melissa Crytzer Fry

The desert has taught me that scary things often come in pretty packages, and pretty things often come in disguised packages:

When I first saw one of these fuzzy ants in the desert, my instinct was to touch it. Aww. Pretty. NOT. This velvet ant (Dasymutilla magnifica) packs one heck of a sting if disturbed. Photo by Stephen Minter, Desert Museum Digital Library. Click to enlarge.

Meet the desert’s Sacred Datura. My Audubon book says, “Caution: Entire plant is toxic.” Hard to believe something with such a gorgeous flower can be fatal if ingested by humans or other animals! Click to enlarge.

Just some desert rocks, you say? Not so fast…

Geodes are known for their illusive nature – containing beautiful display-worthy crystals inside, while their outsides are quite deceiving. These rocks I found during various hikes aren’t geodes, but their insides did reveal pretty crystal formations and marbled color striation. Click to enlarge.

The obvious message? Don’t judge a book by its cover. But we do it all the time, don’t we? We make assumptions about people based on their mannerisms, their looks, their speech, their likes and dislikes (even if we try to be unbiased). And, yes, we even do it with our reading purchases. (At least I do … though maybe this is part of my background, having designed alumni magazines in a previous life?).

I will admit to my bias, sharing three specific examples of books I shied away from based on cover instinct only.

I was personally unimpressed by the type-only treatment of this title, which seemed a little elementary and made me wonder about the book’s content (Would I like it? Was it a good fit for my reading preferences?). However, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The book is SO smart and the cover actually reveals quite a bit about the story. (The writing in this book is gorgeous, too). I’m glad I ignored my cover-instinct and moved forward. A fabulous read.
This is another book I shied away from based solely on the cover. I really, really disliked the font; it reminded me of a ‘70s throwback and was too fru-fru for my liking. I expected a soggy, mushy romance (See how much I assumed from a cover alone?) But then rave reviews from trusted friends and authors came in. So I’m reading it now. Guess what? I love it. It, too, is smart and beautifully written.

Same story here. The cartoonish feel of the cover caused me to overlook it week after week, even though my Goodreads friends were reading it and reviews are positive. I will read it, despite my initial reaction.
For Readers & Writers So… Am I just a bad judge of book-cover character? Maybe. Do I put too much stock into cover art? Maybe. Or is it just human nature to (literally) judge a book by its cover? Artwork – colors, photos, drawings, font size, graphic treatment – creates mood, doesn’t it? A cover tells its own story, right? It’s a huge marketing tool for the sale of books…

And, in an age of inch-sized images (Amazon, Goodreads), where so many of us make our purchase decisions, isn’t it imperative that the tiny packet of pixels represents the right message? Shouldn’t covers all look professional? And shouldn’t they all tell a compelling visual story? But then again, what I find appealing you may not. What I find compelling you may not … It’s a personal thing in the end, isn’t it?

Do you ever pass up a book because of its cover? Do you even care about covers? Do you think today, more than ever, readers pay more attention to covers and are more discriminating (due, in part, to the sheer volume of work being published, especially in e-book format)?

I made assumptions (incorrect) about the above books, based on covers alone. Maybe I should look to the velvet ant, the Sacred Datura, and the geode … and stop judging books by their covers. The real question is: Can I?