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.

 

 

10,000 Ways

One of my favorite quotes is by Thomas Edison when he talked about creating a light bulb:

I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.

With my first rejection letter out of the way, I can now say I know one way that won’t work.

But I am impatient. Always have been.

I buy a lot of books — too many of which I haven’t read — on subjects ranging from basic economics to warfare.

They collect dust, because for some reason I keep thinking that the mere presence of a book on my shelf means I can learn the subject, as if I can absorb it through osmosis. It’s a sad realization that I don’t necessarily want to learn new things; I want to know them without having to work to get there.

Unfortunately for me, to find an agent who’ll hopefully find me a publisher requires not only patience, but a lot of studying and research. I have to study each prospective agent carefully to see if they will not only be a good fit for representing my book, but also a good fit for me personally. I will, after all, be working with said agent — for years if everything goes right.

I must be like Thomas Edison, and continue to write, to pursue, and figure just the right combination for success, even if it means learning 10,000 ways how not to do it.

To quoth Mr. Edison again:

Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.

God willing, it won’t take me literally 10,000 tries. I’ll settle for 12. Okay maybe 20. 50?

A Pile of Goo

I described in a previous entry about how a writer’s success or failure depends on the subjective opinions of others. When writers decide to go the route of traditional publishers, they are placing all their hopes — to start — with a single person, whether it be an agent or editor. When that particular agent/editor says, “Thanks but no thanks,” the writer can’t help but feel heartbroken.

Turns out I didn’t have to wait eight weeks after all. The rejection letter is as follows:

Hi,

Thank you for your submission.

Unfortunately, I did not connect with the submitted material enough to consider your project for representation.

I am grateful that you have afforded me this opportunity to find out about you and your project, and wish you the best of success with your current and future creative work. This business is highly subjective; many people whose work I haven’t connected with have gone onto critical and commercial success. So, keep after it.

I wish I had the time to respond to everyone with constructive criticism, but it would be overwhelming, hence this form response. However, there are three pieces of writing advice that I preach to everyone (from which I receive no monetary gain or benefit):

 

It’s hard not to focus on this part and ignore the rest: “I did not connect with the submitted material.”

My story sucks. It’s boring. It’s poorly written. I wasted my time and his. I should give up, because if I don’t, I’ll keep running into disappointment, and embarrass myself.

My brain is telling my heart not to believe it, and to shove those tears back into those ducts. Instead of focusing on the first part, my brain is trying to twist my eyeballs toward the second part about how everything is subjective, and one agent’s opinion is just that. Not everyone is going to like everything. I’ve read plenty of very successful books I didn’t like. And I’ve read obscure books that made me wonder why they weren’t more successful. Nor am I alone in this journey. Plenty of successful authors had to go through a lot of rejection letters before finally receiving an acceptance.

Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? Yeah, well, my heart isn’t willing to be reasonable. It wants to wriggle on the floor in a pile of goo for a while.

 

Too Late Now

Whenever I submit a story or proposal to a potential publisher, I don’t look at it again.

The temptation is there, believe me, enough to make me break out into a sweat. It ain’t pretty that sweat, nor is the resulting odor wafting from my over-reactive pores. My poor family.

Did I spell the agent/publisher’s name correctly?

Did I remember to include all he/she asked for?

Are there glaring grammatical/spelling errors that I missed?

I refrain from verifying one way or another, because if I made all those mistakes above, it’s too late now. And why make myself cry and gnash my teeth over something I can’t fix anyway?

Yesterday I sent off my query letter. Last night at about 3am I woke up in a sweat and heart pounding, terrified I had misspelled the agent’s name. I know I didn’t, because I triple-checked it before sending it off. At least I think I didn’t. I hope I didn’t . . .

The only issue I have now (aside from night terrors) is when to expect a response. Nowhere on the agent’s website did I see a time-frame. I’ll give him about eight weeks, though. If I don’t hear anything back then, I’ll pursue another agent (is it me, or does that sound too much like stalking?).

I Wrote That?

Since I’m ready to submit my novel to literary agents, I figured it was time to update my website. I didn’t realize until I started that it hadn’t been updated in four years. You read that right. Four years.

One page includes links to individual poems, articles, and other items I’ve written over the years. As part of the update, I made sure the links still worked.

Some I re-read to see if they were still any good. One in particular actually brought me to tears, both because of its profundity, and because I couldn’t help but marvel that little-‘ole-me wrote it.  Yep. It’s that good.

It doesn’t really fit into a particular category. It’s not a poem or short story, but more of an exercise in the senses.

It’s short, so instead of linking it, here it is in entirety. I hope you enjoy it:

———————————————-

On The Wings of Smoky Air

Playing my second set on the black grand piano, I begin to wonder if anyone hears. Behind the perfectly tuned notes being carried off on the wings of smoky air throughout the lounge, the murmur of quiet conversations and the clinking of glasses reach past the music to echo in my ears.

I block out the noise and let each note embrace and resonate within me. My fingers, so familiar with the tune, skip across the ivory. The cool unblemished keys warm to my touch. I breathe deep, filling my lungs with air rife with stale cigarette and cigar smoke. But I hardly take notice. I reach the crescendo and the last note fades away, leaving me once again exposed to the present.

With a sigh, I reach up to stretch my stiff white collar to alleviate the chafing. I grab my wineglass, emptying it with a large gulp. The deep red wine, while initially sweet, carried a sharp and bitter aftertaste. Every taste bud on my tongue stiffens and tries to retreat in protest. With a grimace, I set the glass back down, wondering what I should play next.

Then I see her.

In the middle of the dimly lit room, an old woman nurses a glass of white wine. Her wrinkled face speaks of untold hardships and sorrow. The candle on the small, round mahogany table only deepens the creases in her wizened face. A single tear eases down her cheek. The candle’s flame glints in the drop, making it appear like a smooth, polished gold nugget.

My gaze inches up the trail left by her tear until it locks with her clear blue eyes alight with a half forgotten memory of joy.

I smile, remembering what my teacher told me long ago, “If the adulation of the crowds fade or never appear, try instead to bring joy to one person at a time with your gift.”

I remove the yellowed and brittle sheet music off the stand to replace it with another. I nod to the lady and begin to play for her and for her alone.

My teacher was right. Bringing joy to one is enough.

 

Taking the Fork

I gave my hands to God when I was sixteen for him to use as he sees fit. It’s the talent he gave me, and I understood at that moment that everything I write is for him and his glory.

The main reason I wrote my first novel came from discontent with both Christian fiction and mainstream science fiction.

Christian fiction at the time was all geared toward the “middle-aged Christian housewife.” Most of what was on the market could only be categorized as Christian romance.

Most science fiction I’ve read — especially futuristic/space travel — is written with the premise that there is no God, or it’s some form of uncaring and ethereal “universe” or “force.”

I lamented my frustrations to God one day, and he responded with, “Then you write it.”

So I did.

Ten years later I find myself at a crossroads. Even though many Christian publishers are taking science fiction, few will touch mine. Why? Because my characters, even the protagonists, do things that the publishers simply won’t accept. Many drink, some are drug addicts, two are gay, and almost all of them aren’t virgins. They also swear. (Why that’s “bad” is described in the linked articles below).

I also wrote two other novels that are geared more toward the mainstream market. God plays no central role (if he plays a role at all).

I want to see them published, but with that desire came confusion and a real spiritual struggle.

By writing secular fiction where God makes no appearance, how can my words, then, glorify God? Am I instead using the gifts he gave me for my own selfish purposes, thereby thrusting God into the back seat, if not outright kicking him to the curb? How is that right?

But then I read this article by Simon Morden, a British author: http://www.simonmorden.com/about/essays/sex-death-and-christian-fiction/

He wrote that in 2005, but revisited the subject in 2011: http://www.simonmorden.com/about/essays/where-are-we-now-sex-death-and-christian-fiction-revisited/

Both are long, but more than worth the time. By the end of the first article I wanted to cry. The author’s words were exactly what I needed to hear. He also expressed my own frustrations with the Christian book market much, much better than I ever could.

In short, he said one can still be a Christian — to write for God — without writing specifically for the Christian market. They’re not mutually exclusive.

That’s not to say I’m giving up on my Christian novels, because I’m sure there is a publisher out there willing give them a chance. I believe those stories need to be told.

But neither is God asking me to pigeon-hole my writing, to restrain myself and my passions, to silence one story or character in favor of another deemed more appropriate by a certain publisher or specialized market. I can write for both Christian and mainstream markets — even if it means using two nom de plumes. Based on those articles, and many other “signs” I’ve received in the last two weeks alone, I know I’m on the right path. Or should I say “paths.”

As Yogi Berra said (as a play on words, originally), “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

I’m taking it. Them.