Bite Your Tongue

Last Sunday my pastor highlighted James 3, specifically verses 1-12. I won’t add them here, because it’s a bit lengthy. I will highlight 6-10 (NLT):

And the tongue is a flame of fire. It is a whole world of wickedness, corrupting your entire body. It can set your whole life on fire, for it is set on fire by hell itself.

People can tame all kinds of animals, birds, reptiles, and fish, but no one can tame the tongue. It is restless and evil, full of deadly poison. Sometimes it praises our lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God. And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth. Surely, my brothers and sisters, this isn’t right!

My pastor also highlighted a quote that comes from the Talmud, which tells that “the tongue is an instrument so dangerous that it must be kept hidden from view, behind two protective walls (the mouth and teeth) to prevent its misuse.”

Jesus also knew the power of the tongue (Matthew 12:36-37):

And I tell you this, you must give an account on judgement day for every idle word you speak. The words you say will either acquit you or condemn you.

I’m as guilty as anyone of speaking without thinking, of spewing out the gossip of the day against others without taking into consideration how much it could harm those I’m talking about. Nor do I take the time to discover if said gossip is even true (as if it matters in the first place).

I often stay silent when people gossip in front of me. Instead of defending that person, I listen with eager ears, relishing in every juicy detail.

As a writer, it’s even worse, because the words I write are more permanent. I’ve let my fingers fly on Facebook, Twitter and other websites without taking into consideration the harm my words could cause. Sure, I can remove my posts, but by then, my words have already done their damage. A couple of times, I feared that damage was permanent. I’ve been lucky that they haven’t, but repairing those relationships took time that I didn’t have to waste if only I’d remained quiet, or chose better words.

Saying “sorry” later sometimes seems inadequate. As my mom told me once, “If you were sorry, you wouldn’t have done it in the first place.”

That seems like a harsh comment, because we all make mistakes. At the same time, however, I should know better, and I often do know better. I know gossip is wrong; I know I should consider the impact of my words and deeds before I speak or act, yet I continue to not guard my tongue, or my hands.

But there is a remedy in James 4:7-10:

So humble yourselves before God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come close to God, and God will come close to you. Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world. Let there be tears of sorrow and deep grief. Let there be sadness instead of laughter, and gloom instead of joy. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up in honor.

Ah, humility. That’s a tough one, because I do like my pride.

Apropos

I participated in a blog contest on my other blog a few weeks ago. Considering what happened with Melania Trump at the RNC Convention, it seemed apropos to repost it here.

For the first round, I had to answer this question:

What is originality and what is plagiarism? As writers we experience a fine line between the two. Most ideas have been done, but if we take our own original take on them, are they new? Sometimes we find inspiration or influence from other authors; it is how we grow as writers. How do you deal with this dilemma in your own writing?

The other day I complained to a friend how reading as much as I do has constrained me when it comes to starting a new story. Every time I think I have a great idea, I remember a book or story that tackled it already.

“It’s been done already,” is a phrase I oft repeat, and it’s downright depressing.

I can also point out certain ideas in my current stories that have come from other books and even television shows. Does that make me a plagiarist?

First, let’s consider the definition of plagiarism (according to the Oxford Dictionary):

the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own.

On the surface, yes, I have plagiarized other writers.

According to Wikipedia, however:

Plagiarism is the “wrongful appropriation” and “stealing and publication” of another author’s “language, thoughts, ideas, or expressions” and the representation of them as one’s own original work. The idea remains problematic with unclear definitions and unclear rules. The modern concept of plagiarism as immoral and originality as an ideal emerged in Europe only in the 18th century, particularly with the Romantic movement.

Plagiarism is considered academic dishonesty and a breach of journalistic ethics. It is subject to sanctions like penalties, suspension, and even expulsion. Recently, cases of ‘extreme plagiarism’ have been identified in academia.

Plagiarism is not in itself a crime, but can constitute copyright infringement. In academia and industry, it is a serious ethical offense. Plagiarism and copyright infringement overlap to a considerable extent, but they are not equivalent concepts, and many types of plagiarism do not constitute copyright infringement, which is defined by copyright law and may be adjudicated by courts. Plagiarism is not defined or punished by law, but rather by institutions (including professional associations, educational institutions, and commercial entities, such as publishing companies).

The Bible even addresses this difficulty in the Book of Ecclesiastes (verse 1:9):

What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.

All in all, a certain amount of plagiarism can’t be avoided in anything we write. A large percentage of what we know and learn originated from someone else.

What we have to do as writers is try to make whatever idea, concept or thought we find from someone else, and put our own unique spin on it.

For instance, one idea I copied pertains to mental telepathy. In my stories, some of the telepaths’ strengths and weaknesses were taken (although I prefer “borrowed”) from the television series “Babylon 5.” I could claim the rest is all from me, but if I searched every book, story, and television show, I would find a lot more similarities.

My world and my telepathic characters, on the other hand, are different enough from “Babylon 5,” I believe only true fans of the show will see the similarity between the two. I doubt they’ll contact the owners of the show and convince them to sue me for plagiarism, though. If anything, they might consider it a compliment – the whole “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” kind of thing.

As the Wikipedia article states, I am certainly in an ethical gray area if taken to plagiarism’s literal definition to the extreme, but I don’t use the ideas to subvert or otherwise harm the “Babylon 5” writers, or to claim their work as my own.

That’s really all plagiarism is. It’s not using other people’s ideas and thoughts to create something different or unique, but to take something someone else has done or written in entirety and claim it as my own.

As for the rest, if you want to borrow my words and my ideas to mix in with your own, you have my permission. I’d be flattered if you did.

I Are Not So Smart Sometimes

I’m not into giving bullet-point advice, because life is often too complex to narrow certain solutions down to a list that, “If you go through these five steps, you will be rich within six months!” Etc., etc.

That said, I do believe a person should do three things each day:

1. Learn something new.
2. Do at least one good deed.
3. Do something silly, and make sure other people know about it.

Three is important, because I think we take ourselves too seriously. We need to laugh at ourselves at times, because it keeps us humble.

At 8:07am this morning, I did a doozy of a silly (and actually qualifies as a stupid). I put a breakfast sandwich in the microwave, and when I returned, I noticed the microwave was still running. I thought someone had removed my sandwich and was cooking their own, but after looking around the kitchen, I couldn’t find my sandwich anywhere.

Then I smelled it.

Crap.

I opened the microwave and out billowed a cloud of smoke, and the originally white paper towel wrapped around the sandwich turned a not-so-lovely brown. I threw the burning hot coal of a sandwich into the sink and turned on the cold water. It sizzled and steam and more smoke filled the sink. Which soon filled the kitchen.

Either the smoke and smell wafted throughout the building, or it has permanently permeated into my skin and nostrils. Now almost 40 minutes later, I can still smell my burnt-to-a-crisp breakfast sandwich.

Turns out, I had accidentally set the microwave to ten minutes instead of one. If I hadn’t gone back into the kitchen after six minutes, I might have set the microwave on fire. Good thing I caught it when I did, because I wouldn’t want to tell my boss how I burnt down his building.

So that’s my silly act of the day, although it might also qualify for the stupid act of the week, month, even year.

I Stole This Entry

While it may sound odd, I really do hate when I finish a book or story. Sure, there’s always a sense of accomplishment, but after that, I feel a bit sad that it’s over. After spending so much quality time writing, when it’s done, I have to ask myself, “Now what?”

On my other blog on writing.com, I participated in a blogging contest where I competed with others based on a specific prompt every two to three days. Now that the contest has ended, I still want to write entries, but write about what, exactly?

I’m a thief, but writing — especially blogs — requires a bit of thievery. A thievery of ideas.

For instance, I noticed a few bloggers writing entries using the following prompt:

Write about a scent you remember from your childhood. What aroma brings back pleasant memories when you smell it?

When I think about memories tied to smells, only one comes to mind.

First I’ll start off with an excerpt from http://health.howstuffworks.com/mental-health/human-nature/perception/smell3.htm… written by Sarah Dowdey:

A smell can bring on a flood of memories, influence people’s moods and even affect their work performance. Because the olfactory bulb is part of the brain’s limbic system, an area so closely associated with memory and feeling it’s sometimes called the “emotional brain,” smell can call up memories and powerful responses almost instantaneously.

The olfactory bulb has intimate access to the amygdala, which processes emotion, and the hippocampus, which is responsible for associative learning. Despite the tight wiring, however, smells would not trigger memories if it weren’t for conditioned responses. When you first smell a new scent, you link it to an event, a person, a thing or even a moment. Your brain forges a link between the smell and a memory — associating the smell of chlorine with summers at the pool or lilies with a funeral. When you encounter the smell again, the link is already there, ready to elicit a memory or a mood. Chlorine might call up a specific pool-related memory or simply make you feel content. Lilies might agitate you without your knowing why. This is part of the reason why not everyone likes the same smells.

Makes sense, because my husband doesn’t mind the smell of skunks, whereas me, I’ll plug my nose and move away as fast as I can, thank you very much.

Now for my own pleasant memory.

There is only one smell that brings back strong memories of my mom. It’s not what you would think, either. It’s not a particular food that she made all the time, nor is it a perfume or soap.

It’s Hoppe’s No.9.

For those of you who don’t know, it’s a cleaning solvent made to clean firearms.

I didn’t realize how strongly it brought back memories of Mom until I smelled it while my husband was cleaning one of his firearms. I couldn’t help but laugh at the realization, because other than my sister, I doubt anyone remembers their mother based on the aroma of gun-cleaning solution.

Now for the why.

My mom liked her firearms, and she had a fair selection of mostly revolvers. She kept all her cleaning gear inside an old suitcase made out of 7-Up cans. My sister has it now.

Every six months or so, whether my mom had used her firearms or not, she would bring them and the suitcase out, and clean them in the living room. I remember watching her, asking what each part of the firearm was, and why she cleaned each part the way she did. She even let me help a few times, and for a long time afterward, my hands would smell of a combination of Hoppe’s No.9 and gunpowder. Good times. Great memories.

My question for you is, what smell brings back memories of your mother?

Heart vs Brain

I’m participating in a blogging contest on another website, and I liked this particular prompt and my response enough to share here:

Prompt:

Write about your greatest struggle so far writing or otherwise. You can choose whichever form you want: short story, poem, creative nonfiction, etc.

When I first saw the question, my brain went into overload. Like every other human, my list of struggles is so long, to pick one is near impossible. It seems we are born, live, and die with struggle.

There’s a quote from the movie “The Matrix.” I don’t have it exact but to paraphrase one of the “agents” as he talked to Neo: “We tried creating the perfect world for you. No struggles, death or disease, but you kept waking up, because you could never believe in a perfect world. We lost entire crops.”

I also think that since we live almost daily with struggles, we can’t imagine what Heaven will be like.

The one that I choose for this particular entry isn’t my greatest struggle, but it’s certainly one of my more recent ones.

Call it a slight case of mid-life crisis.

My hair is graying, certain parts aren’t — shall we say — as perky as they once were. I have arthritic knees and now elbows. Last year I graduated to bifocals. I’m finding myself saying “What?” more often than I used to, and I can’t remember anything unless I write it down or tell my phone to beep me a reminder of an appointment or meeting.

Every day I gain a greater sense of my inevitable mortality.

I see younger folks with better health, figure and energy than I do, and I can’t help but mourn the loss of my youth. I look in the mirror and think, “Yuck. I’m old, fat and saggy. How ugly and worthless am I?”

Like it or not, I determine some of my self worth based on how I look. I would love to lose a few (or 40) pounds, but it gets more difficult the older I get. My brain tells me that looks don’t matter. My son still adores me and smiles whenever he sees me. My husband still thinks, and calls me beautiful. They don’t care that I’m all squishy. Why do I refuse to see me through their eyes?

During church today, my pastor mentioned a recent scientific journal where scientists have discovered that so-called negativity such as anger, frustration cling to our neurons like Velcro. Positive emotions and thoughts, on the other hand, slide off our neurons like Teflon. If true, my brain is no different from anyone else’s. I often see the positive in most every circumstance, but it also takes a lot of mental rigor to get me to that point. Afterward, I need a nap.

In other words, we have to work on optimism, and we have to work on embracing the fact that we are flawed creatures, but nonetheless loveable and beautiful in spite of — or even sometimes because of — those flaws.

So I’m getting old. So no young stud is going to turn his head and think, “Whoa. She’s hot.” That same young stud, however, may still smile and take down a grocery item from a shelf because I can’t reach it. He will treat me kindly and with respect because I am his elder (they still do that, believe it or not. I’ve seen and experienced it).

My brain is convinced that even though there may be fewer days behind me than before, I still have today, and I must not squander it. I am still worthy of being loved no matter what my age or how much loose skin waddles underneath my arms.

Convincing my heart, that’s the real struggle.

Changes Other Parents Don’t Warn You About

Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.

~ Elizabeth Stone.

This quote made complete sense to me the first time I laid eyes on my son, but there were many other momentous experiences I was – and still am – not prepared for.

Parenting strengthens the heart, and I don’t mean by the love a child fills you with. I want to cry with my son every time he cries, especially when I can’t take away his pain. I have to keep my tears hidden, because he needs me to be strong.

It strengthens the stomach. From puke to blood to poop. I’ve seen it all, I’ve smelled it all, and I’ve had to clean up every drop and chunk. Not fun, but it has to be done. I can’t afford to add my puke to his, because that would mean more to clean up, and no one likes to see other people puke, especially a parent.

It strengthens the body. I discovered I’m a lightning bolt with stubby legs when I see my son in danger. One time we played on a sandbar when Tom was not yet two. He wandered into the water and fell into a hole. I never ran so fast in my life. He didn’t go but six inches under water when I had him in my arms and returned to the shore. I did it all in about 3/4 of a second, but it felt like twelve minutes.

It strengthens the nerves. Bugs and insects don’t bother me. There are plenty I don’t like, though. Wasps being one of them. Ugly creatures. But I don’t run away screaming when I see one. I just think they’re ugly with their skinny little bodies. One insect does make my skin crawl, and that’s a tick. They’re also ugly, but what creeps me out is how they can crawl all over you, suck your blood, and you don’t feel a thing. I see one crawling on me and it takes all my wherewithal to remove it and either flush it down the toilet or burn it.

Right before Tom stepped into the shower this evening, he called me into the bathroom and asked me to remove something from his hair (you know where this is going, don’t you?). At first it looked like a piece of caramel stuck in his hair, but then I noticed the shape. My first instinct was to call my husband and tell him to remove it. He was in the garage, however, so I steeled myself, grabbed a pair of tweezers and removed it all by myself. I then flushed it down the toilet.

I was proud of myself, not only that I removed it all by my lonesome, but that I managed to not cringe or make weird noises and faces as I did so. Like with everything else, my son needed to see me calm, so he wouldn’t freak out.

That’s not to say I didn’t shudder after I left the bathroom, or that my skin isn’t crawling with the heebie-jeebies as I write this. Because I did, and I am.

Work Is A Four Letter Word

I’ve been wanting to write an entry for a week now, but every subject that pops into my head soon fizzles as boring and worthless.

Even now I’m considering holding the delete button down until every word I’ve written so far disappears.

How often do you go through your previous accomplishments and think, “Wow. That’s some good stuff?”

Part of me winces at the thought, because it smacks of pride, and doesn’t “Pride go before the fall?”

Regardless, I think it, and worse, I believe it. I have written some good stuff. I just wish I could do it all the time.

If I dig a bit deeper, it’s not only that. I don’t want to have to work hard to accomplish it. Some people seem to write the good stuff without much effort. They’re inspired by little things they see every day, whereas I have to spend days – if not weeks – searching for even a smidgeon of an idea – many of which never take root.

I know I’m being overly harsh on myself. I am who I am; my gifts, desires and talents are unique to me, and I shouldn’t compare myself to others. No. That’s not quite true either. I need to look at what other people accomplish, not with envy or jealousy, but as a way to motivate me to do better. I need to work hard, so when I look back I can say with complete honesty, “I did good.”

And I do. For the most part. Just not as often as I think I should.

Then again, there’s nothing wrong with working hard to achieve a goal. Working hard is what makes us appreciate our accomplishments more. If it were too easy, then it’s not a real accomplishment.

To use an example, let’s say I run around a track in five minutes, but I cross the finish line at the same time as someone wearing prosthetic legs. Which one of us accomplished more?

For me at least, I shouldn’t write because it’s easy. I do it because it’s hard. Maybe not all the time, but often enough. That way, when I do succeed, I can be proud of myself. While pride may make us stumble, it can also motivate us to continue to strive for success. Like everything else in life, it’s a matter of finding balance – and being honest.

“Never go to excess, but let moderation be your guide.”

~ Marcus Tullius Cicero

It ain’t bragging if it’s true.

~ Will Rogers

About 1 in 5,000

Those are my chances of winning the Writers Digest 85th Annual Writing Competition. I’m thinking even those odds are a bit optimistic.

I’m sure they receive tens of thousands of entries, so for mine to stand out among so many, it has to be perfect. That means zero spelling or grammatical errors, and a story that grabs readers from the first sentence and won’t let go until they read the final word. Even then, there’s no guarantee the judges will even like the story. Is it too graphic? Not enough? Do they expect a story that makes a political or social point?

The first part I can control, the second and third are entirely subjective and out of my hands. Hence the long odds. I think my story is awesome, but that’s just me — and only me.

I’ll find out by October 10th whether or not the judges liked my story. The winners will receive significant prizes, but I honestly don’t care about them. I’m looking at bragging rights; one more credit I can add to my query letters to gain the interest of agents and/or publishers.

All in all, if I don’t win or place, all I’ve lost is a bit of time and the $25 entry fee. If I don’t win, I’ll share the losing story. Ha! I’m sure that piqued your interest, right, because who doesn’t want to read a story the judges of a contest thought worthy of only a garbage can?

Rolling in Poison Ivy

When a writer or author follows me on Twitter, I usually follow them back.

When I do I inevitably get a private message stating, “Thanks for the follow. Be sure to check out my book . . .”

It’s a marketing thing, I get it, and I try not to allow cynicism to take over in that they only followed me in the hopes of getting a sale. Have I purchased a book from a Twitter message?

Once.

And I did so because the author of whom I returned the follow messaged me this:

“I’d roll around in poison ivy to get you to read the free sample of my book . . .”

How could I not turn down such an offer?

At $0.99, I decided to buy the book before I even read the sample. I figured at that low cost, I couldn’t lose either way.

“The Scattered and The Dead Book 0.5” reads like a long prologue (as if the 0.5 didn’t give it away).

With some books, less is more, and the authors Tim McBain and L.T. Vargas proved that with this 162 page book.

“All my friends are dead. Everyone I’ve ever cared about is dead.”

Loneliness drives an introvert to write a letter to the girl in the apartment across the hall. He is anxious. Reclusive. Desperate for a friend. The apocalypse interrupts this attempt at human contact.

Now he watches out the window as the world gets gut to pieces by plague and riots. Buildings burn. Pedestrians vomit blood.

Soon bodies line the streets. Rumors of zombies spread. And then the power goes out.

Getting to know someone could be harder than he thought, let alone surviving in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

He might even have to leave the apartment.

The entire book is Decker’s (the main, and really, the only character) letter to the girl across the hallway. In it he describes everything he does and everything he sees out the window before, during and after the apocalypse starts.

On the surface it might sound boring. Where’s the action and interaction between characters If most of the book takes place in a single apartment through the mind of one person? Unless you count the girl, but we don’t meet her; we only know her through the main character and his imaginings of her. The authors don’t reveal how the apocalypse starts, but I don’t care. It’s not relevant to the story; what matters is how Decker responds to the challenges before him.

In order for a writer to build a character who’s believable and sympathetic, the writer must love that character — even if he/she is the antagonist. The love the authors have for Decker is obvious from the first page. He’s not only believable, but I could see a lot of myself in him. I felt as though he was talking and writing the letter to me. That, there, proves how solid the writing is.

The writing is smooth and direct, and I didn’t find a single error. The authors give just enough detail to immerse us into Decker’s mind and his world, but not so much it gets bogged down. I read the entire book in less than two days, and I honestly didn’t want it to end. Luckily Book 1 is out, so I can keep going.

I won’t offer to roll in poison ivy to get you to read it, but I recommend you check out the book nonetheless.

You can find out more here: http://www.amazon.com/Scattered-Dead-Book-0-5/dp/1523769025/

Off The Deep End

Other than needing a killer query letter and super-awesome book to attract agents, many people suggest going to writers conferences. Not only can they help a person build a network of fellow writers, agents, and publishers, but they offer a lot of classes during those 2-4 days. I’ve gone to several already, and although I’ve sold nothing, yet, I always learn so much my brain is mush by the time it’s over.

After four years, I decided it was time to go to another writers conference. I signed up for the annual ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers) Conference in August. This year it’s in Nashville, Tennessee. I’ve never been there, so I’m looking forward to it. I won’t see much of the city itself, because the conference will take up most of my time. But the hotel is close to downtown, so perhaps I’ll take the time to visit a few interesting places.

Don’t ask how much it costs, though, especially after adding the flight and hotel to the conference fee. Yikes.

Even though I’ve been concentrating on my mainstream novel, there’s no reason I can’t try to gain interest in my other, more Christian sci-fi novels. I perused the agents and editors who are scheduled to be there, and several are open to sci-fi. One of the agencies is even on my short-list for my mainstream novel. How’s that for cool?

I’m looking forward to the classes I signed up for:

  1. How To Build A Platform When You’re A Nobody: “How to build a platform when you’ve never been published, no one knows you from Joe Schmo, and you don’t want to look or sound like an absolute narcissist.” Other than not knowing how to promote and promote well, part of my fear of promotion and marketing is coming across as self-absorbed, and that I’m only interested in connecting with people so they’ll buy my books. I don’t want anyone to think it’s all about the sale for me, and that I’ll lose interest the moment they buy my books.
  2. How to Write for ABA While Keeping Your CBA Values: Part Two: “As opportunities for fiction writers within CBA [Christian Booksellers Association] are shrinking both with publishers and with the CBA stores, how to write the kind of story you are committed to but for the general marketplace.” I apparently missed part one, but I doubt it’s crucial that I know Part One. I signed up for this one because I want to use my gifts — my writing — for God’s glory and not my own. I’m still a little concerned that by going the mainstream route, I’m instead writing to glorify myself. This class will help me get over that angst. I hope.
  3. How To Think Like Your Editor: This class is designed to teach writers how to avoid common mistakes such as flat, unsympathetic characters, and bloated passages that don’t advance the plot (to name a few). I like to say that just because I think I’m a good writer, it doesn’t mean I am one. I’m hoping this class will either show me my worst mistakes, and how to fix them, or perhaps show me I’m at least doing some of it right.

Do I expect an agent or editor to take my novel on the spot? Nope. I went to a conference with that expectation once, and I refuse to put myself through it again. This time I go with the expectation that I’ll meet some great people, and learn more about writing and marketing than I know now. If someone finds my manuscript interesting, that’s mere icing on the cake — to use an old and tired cliché. But hey, if it works, it works.