The Not So Big Blue Marble

earthriseThe single worst event to happen to our culture is showing the first picture of Earth from space.

I know what you’re thinking: “Huh? How can a single, awe-inspiring picture from space damage our culture? That picture shows the epitome of human determination, creativity, and risk-taking. It heralded countless technological advances that we now take for granted.”

All true, but as with everything, there is a down side.

When we see pictures of Earth taken by satellites and astronauts, on Google Earth and the map apps on our phones, our perspective of the size of our world has altered, irrevocably.

It’s not the vast, massive world that could never be tamed or disrespected. We instead see it as that little blue marble floating in a sea of sparkling black.

As such, we have elevated our own size, increasing our arrogance with the belief that because we can see any part of our planet with a click of the mouse, we can control it.

Yet we can’t predict the weather with more than a 30% accuracy from one day to the next. We’ll never stop a volcano from erupting, a tornado or hurricane, an earthquake or tsunami. Or as Tennessee sadly shows, we can’t stop all wildfires. We either have to get out of the way (if we have time) or pray that nature will intervene on itself.

We’ve lost our humility, and in some ways we think of ourselves as greater than or equal to God.

And part of that arrogance and self-delusion came from seeing a picture of our planet from space – making it appear thousands of times smaller than it really is.

Don’t Follow Me

I started watching a Netflix series called “Black Mirrors.” It’s a “sci-fi anthology series [that] explores a twisted high-tech near-future where humanity’s greatest innovations and darkest instincts collide.”

The first episode is about a young woman whose social media rating is at a 4.2, but before she can really get what she wants, she needs to raise it to a 4.5. I won’t give much of the details, but let’s just say it all backfires on her.

It serves, I think, as a warning to us all. How often to we post something and eagerly await every single like and comment. Even here, we are given ratings on our writing.

In and of itself, it isn’t a bad thing, especially here. Ratings help us to improve our writing. The problem comes when we take those same ratings and apply it to how we perceive ourselves as individuals. How much do we determine our self-worth based on how high (or low) our ratings go?

During the last writers conference I attended, I sat in on an agent panel, and one agent said, “If I am to look at two writers, and one has thousands of followers on Facebook or Twitter versus another writer who has only a few hundred, I will most likely sign the first writer.”

From the agent’s perspective, it’s not a horrible thing. As writers, our success or failures in readership will always boil down to the numbers. It may seem unfair, but that is the very definition of fair. Numbers don’t discriminate. They are what they are; how we feel about them is never part of the equation.

That said, I don’t want to succeed that way, at least considering the numbers first before anything else. I follow people on Twitter and Facebook because I care about what they have to say. I want people to follow me for the same reason. In fact, I have no idea how many friends I have on Facebook. I only know how many I have on Twitter, because it shows me every time I login. If it didn’t show me, I wouldn’t even care to look.

Some authors have followed me on Twitter. As soon as I decide to follow them, I get a standard private message stating, “Thanks for the follow. Please see my books and/or other products I have for sale.” Out of fifteen or twenty of those, guess how many books I’ve purchased? One. And only because the way that author asked it was so funny and unique, I had to check it out (I’m glad I did. The novella he advertised for was actually quite good). I know then that they’re not interested in my posts. They’re out to get a sale, to uptick their own numbers. As a potential reader, I feel more than a little used.

Writing and gaining readership aren’t solely about the numbers for me. They never were, and I hope they never will be. As other – especially Christian – authors have said and stressed, writing should be my ministry. For me, it shouldn’t matter if my words influence and comfort a mere 100 people instead of 100,000. Nor should any number of ratings or likes on social media determine how I view myself, or even in how others may view me (“Psh, she only got seven likes for that post. Must be crap. I ain’t reading that!”)

Now this last part may sound like a sales pitch in disguise, but it isn’t. I don’t want you to follow me — unless you really care about my words. Also know that if I follow you, it’s not to try to sell you something, or increase my numbers and/or ratings. I do so because I want to know what you have to say. It’s as simple as that.

News Blackout

I hate news media. I know I’m not supposed to hate anyone, but I truly despise news media today, especially national media. They don’t care about anything unless it “proves” their preconceived notions about a certain issue or incident. If it doesn’t, they will ignore any facts to the contrary, and use only the “facts” that do.

I’ve always known news media was biased, but until I started paying attention to the North Dakota Access Pipeline news, I didn’t realize how bad it was. While our local news agencies did present most of the facts (some are better than others), but national news coverage ignored all points of view except the so-called “protesters.” It’s nothing less than journalistic malpractice as far as I’m concerned.

For example, although two court cases proved the protesters wrong in that the pipeline does not go through reservation land, and no burial grounds or other historically significant sites had been disturbed or destroyed, almost every national news article left those parts out. They also never considered Law Enforcement’s point of view; only how the protesters are [allegedly] being mistreated and injured, and how Law Enforcement continues to violate the “protesters” civil rights. Not a word about the laws the “protesters” broke.

Yesterday I read the ACLU’s letter to the Department of Justice, and their cited sources included articles by Salon, Democracy Now!, other magazines or newspapers from other states – even blogs. They included not one local news source.

You can read the letter here.

With today’s election I have decided to engage in a complete news blackout, and that includes all social media. The news media has proven time and again who they want to win, so they will cite only certain counties and states that are all but guaranteed to go to Hillary. They will throw at us exit poll after exit poll that also “proves” their desired results in the hope they will discourage the other side from voting at all (in an attempt to repeat what happened in Florida in 2000).

Truth and facts not only don’t matter to them, they are like garlic and sunlight to a vampire.

I will wait until tomorrow to find out who won and who lost, both nationally and locally. News media talking heads pretending to know everything – including the future – are nothing but sirens screeching in my ears, and I refuse to torture myself.

Maybe by then I will no longer give a rat’s ass.

About Hate

WARNING: This is a long rant, so you best make yourself comfortable.

I live in Morton County, North Dakota where all the Dakota Access Pipeline protests are taking place. Thankfully, so far, I’ve seen little of it out my front window.

We’ve all seen riots in other cities. Percentage-wise, few of us have seen a riot up close. It’s easy to say from hundreds or even thousands of miles away how people should respond, but — at least for me — it’s difficult to understand the fear, the hatred, the anger and uncertainty of everyone who experiences it first hand. Even for those who don’t participate, and merely want to go about their day in peace, but can’t.

The protests started because many of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe believed the pipeline was encroaching on sacred land, and thereby destroying many of their sites, including burial grounds. Time and again, and through multiple federal, state and local agencies, the claims have proven false. The pipeline in fact doesn’t even enter reservation land, and is going in the same easement as another pipeline built in 1982.

After Standing Rock lost two court cases, they changed their tactics to claim it’s about keeping the Missouri River free of oil contamination, and to protect our drinking water. Again, through multiple agencies, the pipeline design has shown to be well above current regulations with regard to safety (I have to add that all the water we drink is filtered, processed and cleaned of all forms of contaminates before it ever enters our pipes, so that argument is disingenuous at best).

Even that’s no longer the issue.

All day today, I’ve had this hard, dark, and sick feeling in my stomach. A sense of dread that refused to go away.

It stemmed mostly because I knew the police would be removing the so-called protesters from private land. They spent almost an entire day yesterday and this morning asking them to disperse, and return to the camp set up on Corps of Engineers land — which they have permission to occupy, and remove all the barriers they set up on state and county roads.

Many did leave, but enough remained that the police had to round them up. Sixteen were eventually arrested at that time, but not before they continued to block the roads and set fires to tires to create a black smoke which — I believe — they hoped would delay the police even further.

No one was harmed during the arrests (as of now 117 today, so we’re well over 300 total arrests since August). The police have shown remarkable restraint and professionalism. No one has been seriously injured, police and protesters alike.

Aside: Several weeks ago when my husband, Dave and I went out to lunch, six officers from a neighboring county who’re helping with the protests sat next to us. We chatted with them for a bit about some of their standard equipment including a tourniquet that’s no bigger than a pocket knife.

Before we left, my husband said, “Thank you for all you do. We really appreciate you.”

The looks on their faces when they said, “Thank you,” almost brought me to tears. It was obvious how much they appreciated being appreciated. Considering all the vitriol, hatred and outright threats they’ve received non-stop on social media alone (seriously, it’ll make your blood simultaneously turn cold and boil — if you don’t mind the cliché), I’m certain they don’t feel that appreciation enough.

Many of the Sioux Tribe aren’t even involved in the protests, and want them to stop as much as the other locals. Especially the farmers and ranchers who only want to get their livestock and crops in and taken to market in a timely manner, and not have to fear protesters trespassing and molesting their property, including livestock.

I had hoped that after all the arrests, my sense of foreboding was nothing more than an over-reactive fear (that happens with writers sometimes. We can’t help ourselves).

I was wrong. In the last few hours, a woman was arrested for shooting a firearm at the police line, a man was allegedly shot in the hand (don’t know the details on that), and our news agencies released reports of protesters throwing Molotov cocktails at police.

Someone asked on Facebook when all this was going to stop.

I responded thusly: “It won’t. Not even after someone dies, and I fear it will come to that. It’s not about water or oil anymore. It’s about hate and contempt, and feelings instead of the rule of law.”

I can’t help but wonder if these protests (read: riots) will soon spread to my town (because it’s also the county seat), and I am seriously considering carrying a firearm with me (don’t worry, it’s legal for me to do so, as long as I don’t carry concealed [I don’t have a concealed carry license as yet; I’m thinking it’s time I did]).

I hate that I’m thinking this way. I hate that it’s even possible in a state with a population of 600,000, and a county with a population of less than 30,000. I hate that I want to glare at every single person driving an out-of-state vehicle (of all arrests so far, less than 15% are from North Dakota). I hate that when I see a Native American, I wonder if they’re only here to protest (I still smile and say hello, though, because it’s the right thing to do. I just hate my initial reaction and assumptions).

For example, a few days ago I had to run to the City building to pick up a plat. I walk because it’s only four blocks away. At the same time, over 100 people were protesting for the release of a journalist (the judge eventually dropped the charges) at the County building which is right across the street from my destination.

When I stepped out of my office, I saw a Native American riding a bicycle.

My first thought? “Dude, you’re going in the wrong direction. The protest is the other way.”

As I approached, he stopped and asked where he could find social services. To quote, “I’m only here to look for work.” He didn’t even know people were protesting until he saw the police lights. Nor did he seem to care.

I asked him to follow me, and I’d show him where to go. He smiled a lot, thanked me more than once, and kept calling me “ma’am.”

I couldn’t help but wonder if anyone passing us would take a second glance: A white girl and a Native American walking side-by-side toward the protests. I’m sure they all thought we were going there to add our voices to the protesters’. We definitely made an odd couple that day.

Will tomorrow be any better? If these riots (and they are riots as legally defined. See below) follow the same pattern as others, I sincerely doubt it. I can only pray for the safety of everyone involved, and those figuratively and literally caught in the crossfire.

Legal definition of a riot: A disturbance of the peace by several persons, assembled and acting with a common intent in executing a lawful or unlawful enterprise in a violent and turbulent manner.

Meeting Expectations

Sometimes I wish I could go back in time.

Not necessarily to avoid a certain pain, or to prevent a terrible mistake, however. Those I don’t want to go back for, because those pains and those mistakes molded me into the person I am today. And I like me.

I want to go back to the times when I wrote solely for myself. Then, the only person I risked disappointing was me. I didn’t feel the need to censor myself, and I didn’t have to worry about what others would think, or fear that they would hate me for being me.

Part of me hates the idea of publishing, because I feel I now have to write less for me, and more for others. And how am I supposed to know — while I’m writing — whether or not I meet their expectations? How will I know beforehand if those words I spilled out onto the page have angered, insulted or otherwise broke some rule of writing that will, in the end, push them away?

And yet, it was that “writing for me,” that attracted readers in the first place. I’ve always written better when I write without fear of consequence, when I wrote naked (figuratively speaking).

As a reader, I prefer honesty above all else. Even if I may disagree with what a writer says, if what they say is written with honesty and passion, I’ll never hate them for it. I may get angry, or frustrated, but that can also be a good thing. I like to be challenged, to see things from a different perspective.

I can’t be alone in that.

I don’t want to disregard my readers. Never that, but at the same time, I can’t allow my fear of what readers will think simply because I’m being honest. If I do, all that’s left is to lie.

I can’t do that either.

I’m reading “Writing 21st Century Fiction,” by Donald Maass, and the basic premise is for writers to quit holding back. What readers are looking for these days is no-holds-barred stories. Stories that make a person cringe, cry, infuriate, and want to sleep with the lights on, as well as laugh and go “Awwww.”

Because I want to write for a particular market, I’m trying to write stories that will meet their expectations. But what if my biases — and expectations — of that market are wrong, and they want to see the kind of writing I’m longing to write, but afraid to?

I go back to Jesus and his stories. He told stories that convicted and angered as well as inspired and comforted. He didn’t hold back, and if I am to live how he lived (which is what he asks of all of us), I can’t afford to. Not if I want my stories to make a real difference.

Ups And Downs

Often when I experience a series of good things, I soon find myself standing in the equivalent of a dark valley. Or at least a shadowed one.

Since it happens so often, you’d think I’d expect it, or be used to it. Try neither, but I’ve at least convinced myself to endure it – hopefully with a smidgen of grace.

The highs came from placing 2nd in the Writer’s Digest contest and the agent asking for the first three chapters of my novels during the conference.

The low I’m in now is partially due to coming down with a cold (yay), and giving one of my manuscripts to a fellow writer. She likes the story, and her edits so far are quite accurate and will only make me a better writer – which is why I asked for her critique in the first place. I’m far too close to my writing, it’s sometimes near impossible to look at it objectively. That’s why critiques are so important.

Those infuriating voices, however, those ones we’re all familiar with that try to convince us how awful we are, and that we should give up writing. They won’t leave me alone.

A few weeks ago someone asked how others fight off the uncertainties of being a writer. This is how I responded:

Realize those thoughts do not come from God. And since they don’t come from God, who do they come from?

I have those thoughts myself, all the time, and it usually happens right before a breakthrough. Time to put on the armor of God, my friend, because only with Jesus can you fight the enemy. You’re in my prayers.

I don’t always take the above advice. Sometimes I prefer to wallow in self-pity.

Speaking of self-pity . . .

But first off, a warning and apology to my gentlemen readers: I will mention a certain female function you might want to skip over.

It seemed every time we went camping or on a long trip this year, it happened during that time. Attending the writer’s conference was not an exception.

In fact, I was pissed at God that he would allow it. Why? Because it happened two weeks later than normal, to the point I wondered if I was either pregnant or officially entering menopause. Almost the entire four days, I came close to cursing God for cursing me. Especially during a time when I needed to focus on the conference. Instead, I worried about whether or not I would end up having to take an emergency bathroom break.

I mentioned the conference to fellow writers during a get-together we have once a month last weekend. We talked about how not knowing anyone else there, we end up standing on the fringes. One of the ladies in the group mentioned how since every writer likes to talk about themselves, it’s important to ask other writers about who they are and what they write instead of talking about ourselves all the time.

I realized then how much my attitude affected the way I treated other writers. I stood on the fringes along with other writers who didn’t know anyone. Since I felt gross, sad and frustrated, I didn’t want to talk about myself or my writing. I instead approached others standing by themselves and asked them questions. Unless someone asked, I avoided talking about myself.

Turns out, I ended up talking to mostly first-time attendees who I’m sure felt out of sorts – much like I do every time I attend a conference, first time attendee or not.

If I didn’t have my – issues – I kind of doubt I would have been as interested and accommodating as I was. Until I talked about it last weekend with the writers group, I didn’t consider that perhaps God intended my attitude to be subdued to help other attendees – especially first-timers – and not necessarily myself. If that’s the case, I kinda like how God chose me to do that. If nothing else, I’m not cursing him anymore, because something positive came from it.

The Dreaded “What Ifs”

During the awards gala last night, a certain realization hit me.

What if . . .

The agent I pitched to not only wants to see my first three chapters, but asks for the full manuscript, and terror of all terrors, agrees to represent me.

You’d think I’d be excited. After all, isn’t this one step closer to what I’ve been pursuing since I wrote my first novel back in 2001?

The problem with dreaming is it never take into consideration the work involved to not only make the dream come true, but what happens after.

In this case, while I wrote (and wrote. And wrote) the only expectations I had to meet were my own. Once an agent decides to represent me, I not only have to meet her expectations, but the expectations of whichever publisher decides to buy my manuscript, and my readers.

What if . . .

I fail to meet those expectations? And it’s not only the quality of the story, but the quality of the writing, and everything I can (and need) to do to promote my book.

What if . . .

I have no more books in me left to write, or I can’t write them in a timely manner?

And those are the big what ifs. There are many minor ones too, such as what if I don’t get along with my editors, and/or my agent and I have irreconcilable differences.

Do I really want to take those chances? Am I unwilling to take the chance that any or all of those things happen?

How important is fulfilling my dream?

Is it even about me?

Or is it about my stories, and not me at all?

Truth is, I don’t have a choice. When I set my “fleece before the Lord” about pursuing publication in 2010, he told me under no uncertain terms that I should. This is what he wants from me (and for me). To fear moving forward means I don’t trust him enough to know that he’s got this. I’m not saying that all of the above won’t happen. It all still could. All that means is I would have to work harder, trust more, and at worst, start over. That’s not going to kill me, and it won’t kill my dream — at least not if I don’t let it.

Sharpen Your Trigger

I am currently in Nashville, TN attending the ACFW Writers Conference. It is over half over, but my brain has tried to absorb so much information, it feels like tapioca pudding. That’s a good thing, because I’m learning a lot. I’ve discovered I don’t suck as a writer – at least not completely. In the two classes I took so far, I do more things right than I do wrong.

I still have to go through at least one manuscript (the first few chapters anyway, but more on that later) to make several modifications, but luckily not too many. I could have those done tonight – if I’m motivated enough, that is. It’s a bit iffy considering my tapioca brain.

Because I didn’t want to chance missing an entire day of the conference due to delayed or cancelled fights, I decided to arrive a day earlier than most. Just in case everything went well, I signed up for an early bird session with Donald Maass, the literary agent and author of “Writing the Breakout Novel.”

This seminar was titled “Writing in the 21st Century”, which is also based on his newest book of the same title.

Did you know that literary fiction paperback novels remain on best seller lists for nearly ten times or more longer than any other genres, including hard cover and non-fiction? Donald was a bit surprised by that, and read the top books to look for what those books had that others didn’t.

Literary fiction does have a bit of a misconception surrounding it, namely that they’re slow and detail versus plot oriented, when in truth, that’s not always the case. What literary fiction strives for is to make every paragraph, every page make an emotional connection to the reader. It’s intent is to draw the reader in, to immerse him or her into the author’s world.

Me writing science fiction and fantasy, that’s also what I long to achieve. As I’ve said before, I’m not detail/description oriented. I prefer action, and my greatest strength is dialog. When it comes to detail, I groan and moan, and have to almost tie myself to the computer to force me to put it in.

What Donald revealed, however, is it’s not the detail and description that’s important. Description is by definition objective, and even cold. It is another form of telling. The trick is turning that detail and description into an experience. We don’t just see the sunset. There’s an emotional reaction to that sunset, that mountain scape where three people died in an avalanche, and that dark room that your parents always told you to stay out of.

Donald may have converted me into writing more literary fiction. Is there such a thing as literary science fiction and literary fantasy? At the very least, because of everything Donald shared (and I shared with you not even a half a page of the eight pages of notes I took), my readers will have a better, more fulfilling experience.

Today I attended a workshop called “How To Think Like Your Editor.”

During the first part, the presenter, Erin Healy, told us to read our first chapter, not as an editor, but as a reader. She told us to write down our emotional reactions as we read. I was intrigued by the prologue, but when I started on the first chapter, I felt a bit of boredom and frustration. I knew instantly why. I had added a few chunks of description for the sake of description. It was like reading a school book on architecture. While some of the description is necessary, I have to write in such a way to make it an experience.

When we enter a building we’ve never been in before, sure we notice the sights, but what else do we notice? We take in the smells, the feel of the air, and even its mood – often created by our own expectations of what that room should feel like. Sometimes the room meets our expectations, sometimes it doesn’t. The writer’s job is to show that experience.

Here’s the rub.

I met with a literary agent, and I showed her my one-sheets. She asked for my pitch and I said, “I too easily get tongue-tied, so can I read it to you instead?”

She told me to go ahead. She liked it, and when I mentioned the other two I brought with me, she was open to hearing my other two. She seemed impressed at my “world building,” and the fact I had three complete manuscripts. She asked me to send the first three chapters of all three.

Two are ready. The third (the one with the icky, boring detail), needs a bit of tweaking. Thankfully not a lot, so I bet I could tackle it tonight, let it sit until I get home, go through the first three chapters again, and send them off. While she’s perusing them, I’ll go through the rest and hopefully elevate my writing, and make it more literary.

I’m sure you’re dying to know why I chose “Sharpen Your Trigger,” as my title. It doesn’t make sense, since it’s an obvious mix of metaphors. It’s one Donald Maass used during his talk (which he noticed right away), and I liked it so much, I had to use it.

Advocate

A few weeks ago, I attended a meeting with fellow writers. We discussed a lot, but one thought we had is how writers need to constantly and consistently look at all sides of an issue or argument.

We must see from the perspective of our antagonist as much as our protagonist, otherwise our characters appear flat instead of three-dimensional. No one likes paper-cut characters. It’s nothing new, either. Even in the classic novels written hundreds of years ago, the antagonists were just as human and sympathetic as the heroes.

In a sense, we are our characters’ advocate. They can’t speak without us.

While I wrote my fantasy, I tried to be the advocate for all my characters — to take even the side of the antagonists at times, because no person (or at least an extreme few), have the motivation to do evil for the sake of evil. They often act with the belief they are righteous, and that the end justifies the means.

For instance, one of my antagonists feels the need for revenge after he saw all of his family massacred. For years his hatred festered. It so blinded him that he wanted and needed to avenge that long-ago evil on the people who merely represented those that murdered his family.

His actions are wrong, but completely understandable.

There was one point when two of my characters exchanged a heated argument. I had to argue both sides equally, even though I knew who I wanted to “win.” A few times the antagonists almost won the argument, and it took a long time before my protagonist found a way to win the argument. That ended up one of my favorite scenes in the book, because it was so darned challenging to write.

What I hope is that the reader will also wonder who will win the argument, because I myself wasn’t sure while I wrote it.

Advocating for my characters is the main reason I write. For much of my childhood, I had difficulty expressing myself. I always say that God didn’t connect my brain to my mouth very well. Writing, however, gave me the voice on paper that I lacked with speaking. Writing, in a sense, became my advocate. How can I not want to advocate for all the voices in my head that want and need to be heard?

If A Bug Crawled In, I Wouldn’t Have Noticed

Back in May, I decided to submit a short story to the 85th Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition. Even with the $25 entry fee, it’s not much to lose if I don’t win. I didn’t think my chances were good, because every year they receive well over ten thousand entries. Even taking the different categories into consideration, I would still be competing with thousands of entries. I wasn’t even interested in the prize money; I was looking for bragging rights.

I submitted my story a day before the deadline, and of course, I took one more look at the story after I submitted it and found one spelling error. I knew that one typo would toss me out of the running, because considering the number of competitors, the judges would look for even the tiniest reason to toss the entry aside.

A few weeks after I entered the contest, I signed up for the ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers) annual conference. Part of what gains a prospective agent and/or publisher is writing credits which include any writing contests. Unfortunately, win or lose, I wouldn’t find out how I fared in the contest until long after the conference.

Imagine my total surprise when I received the following email this afternoon:

Hi Andra,

Congratulations! Your story, “Ashella’s Heart,” was awarded Second Place in the Genre category for the 85th Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition. You’ve won $500 and $100 off a purchase from the Writer’s Digest Shop; more information regarding this will be sent from the competitions department in the next few weeks.

I’ve attached a few forms that will need to be completed and returned so we can get you your prize!

Now you know the meaning of my title. My mouth fell open when I read the email, and I don’t think I closed it until after I read it three times.

The best part, again isn’t the money — although I’m certainly not going to turn it down — is I now have bragging rights, and a mere one week before I leave for the conference.