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 Maas, 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 Maas 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.

No Control And A Smidgeon of Faith

Dang. I haven’t written an entry in almost a month? Where did the time go?

I’d like to say I’ve been busy. I suppose in many ways I have, but I’ve also wasted a lot of time, too.

Mostly I haven’t written an entry, because my mind has been focused on polishing three manuscripts, and preparing “one-sheets” (basically a back-cover blurb of a manuscript with an author’s bio and other information). To my surprise, I’m done with them all. Not that I expected not to finish, but that I would finish with more than a week to spare before I head to the ACFW conference in Nashville. As good as I am at procrastinating, I shouldn’t be done this early. Now I don’t know what to do with myself.

I know what I should do: Write a few short stories and see if there are magazines that will take them. That’ll take research, and a lot of reading. Not a bad way to spend my time versus getting all anxious for the conference.

I have an appointment with a publisher and a literary agent to pitch my novels to. On the one hand, I’m hopeful, but on the other, I’m not. I’ve pitched before with no results, so if history is my guide, my chances of making a positive impression are low. I’m trying to convince myself that I’m going for the comradery of other writers — struggling in many of the same ways I am — and to attend classes to learn more about writing, marketing, etc. Plus I get to spend five days in an upscale hotel built next to the Country Music Hall of Fame (not a huge fan of country music, but I’ll still find it interesting if I have the time to see it). If I gain interest in my novels, all the better. I’ve gone to other conferences with the hope of a sale as my main reason of going, and ended up a few tears short of devastation. I’m not going to do that to myself again.

The last time I went to a conference (back in 2010), I wrote an entry at the end of every day to keep everyone updated, and so I won’t forget. I am, after all, getting a bit up there in age. I don’t remember things as well as I used to. I may do the same again.

My biggest worry is taking the plane. It’s not that I fear flying. I actually enjoy it (although I hate going through security), but my biggest pet-peeve is being late. For anything. Few things get me angry, but being late is near the top of the list. I am placing my trust in an airline and two planes to get me to the conference on time (I am going a day early, just in case, but one still never knows). I don’t like having to relinquish control like that. But I either fly, or drive cross-country for two days one way by myself. My flight is also with Delta, and in case you don’t know, they had severe flight issues last week that resulted in hundreds of delays and cancellations. That it’ll happen again next week worries me some.

Then again!

Back in 2010 I set a “fleece before the Lord,” which means I asked for a specific sign for a specific question I needed an answer to. My son was two at the time, and I was really happy and content with my life. I was writing little with the exception of my blog, and I was okay with that.

I started to wonder if God wanted me to pursue publishing my books, or if I should continue to live my life as it was, writing only as a hobby.

At that time, I had just purchased an annual membership to ACFW, and I received an email describing their Genesis Contest. Contestants submit the first fifteen pages of their manuscript along with a short synopsis. It then goes through a few rounds, and winners are revealed at the annual conference.

I told God that I would submit my novel, and that if I made the finals, I would know he wanted me to continue. As most of you know, I not only made the finals, but I won in my chosen category.

Do I think God is leading me to this conference? Perhaps, but perhaps not. Even so, whatever happens, I need to trust that God is in control. If there are issues with my flights, so be it. If not, even better. Worse case, I’ll have to cancel everything, and hopefully get some of my money back after paying all my late cancellation fees.

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.