J.S. Bach, Stephen King, And Creating Suspense

At readings or book club gatherings, I’m often asked some variation on the question, “When you’re working on a book, how do you ____?” Sometimes it’s “. . . come up with your ideas?” Sometimes, it’s “. . . develop your characters?” One of the most interesting questions is, “How do you create suspense?”

The usual answer is, of course, to hint at some trouble that’s going to happen to an important character, but don’t give enough information that the reader can figure out what it’s going to be. This advice is useful to a point, but for me, at least, it’s easier said than done. When I’m writing, I know what’s going to happen, and I can get far too confident that I’ve nicely concealed it from the reader. But like Freudian slips of the tongue, unconscious slips-of-information find their way into the writing, sometimes in the form of hints that go too far, at other times not-so-subtle clues that I hadn’t meant to divulge till later.

This is why an evaluation and critique by a good editor is so important. Even before I send a manuscript off to my editor, Lorna Lynch, my wife Michele will have often read a passage and said, “You’re making it too obvious. I’ve figured it out already!” (Back to the manuscript for another re-write!)

I follow a number of writers’ craft websites, where experienced writers offer advice on the multitude of “how to do its” that comprise the writing craft. This morning I came across a fascinating video by an editor, Dave King, in which he discusses how to generate strong suspense in a novel. What’s fascinating, though, is that as he explains his points, he illustrates them by playing a segment of the monumental Fantasia and Fugue in A-Minor, by J.S. Bach.

Being an organist myself—well, having studied pipe organ for about eight years in my teens and early twenties—this music is one of my most beloved pieces by my all-time most cherished composer for pipe organ. So, it was doubly exciting to hear Dave King play the segment he played, and also to see how skillfully he used it to illustrate what Stephen King (no relation to Dave) does to create suspense in his books.

Like to hear the music and what Dave King tells us about creating suspense? It’s at the Writer Unboxed website. I promise you’ll enjoy it, and you’ll learn (or re-learn) something about good writing!

Okay, my ten-minute timer just went off, so I’m off, too. See you next week.

“Small Everyday Acts of Kindness”

(I’m still experimenting with writing these posts in ten minutes or fewer. I’d love to hear from you about what you think of them!)

Gandalf, the great wizard in Tolkien’s beloved Lord of the Rings trilogy, was asked why he’d chosen a Hobbit, Frodo Baggins, to go up against Sauron, the evil lord who threatened the existence of goodness itself. Gandalf answered, “Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check. But that is not what I have found. I have found that it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love. Why Frodo Baggins? I am afraid. He is small, but he gives me courage.”

In our world, it seems to be the case that many people think differently. I listen, particularly, to certain of our politicians, whom I can only conclude must be terrified, to judge from their relentless rhetoric of war and their chest-thumping cruelty. It is as if by threatening, by promising death and destruction, by blithely ripping families apart and condemning a generation to poverty, these men—and they are always men—think they can have their way with whomever they wish. Can they?

I doubt it. We wanted to have our way in Afghanistan in 2001, in Iraq in 2003, and now North Korea in 2017. After 16 years, we are still in Afghanistan, after 14 we’re still in Iraq, and we’re not getting our way. We wanted to have our way in 1950 in Korea as well, and we are still there, still bellowing in frustrated fury at its leaders.

“Small everyday deeds,” said Gandalf, “keep the darkness at bay.” He was too wise to think that anything could make the darkness vanish and give victory to the light. The best we can hope for, he suggests, is to hold off the darkness, and whatever small everyday deeds of kindness and compassion that you and I can perform will do so.

But what small everyday deed can I do that will keep North Korea or ISIS or any threat at bay? I think that’s not the right question: On the world stage, nothing you or I, as individuals, do will stop the Saurons of our time, nothing, that is, except to vote carefully and to pressure our representatives in government to do the same, and keep pushing for the best. A better question is: What small act can I perform today that will improve my life, my family, my community, the world around me?

The Ring of Power has been handed to each of us, as it was to Frodo, and each of us must find our own particular small everyday act to perform, faithfully, in order to play our small role in the great deeds of our time.

Well, my ten minutes are up. I’ll see you next week!

Writing for Ten Minutes

A writer I know, Dwayne P., has a deep desire to write fiction, but such a busy life that he has not found the time. Recently, he was telling our writers’ group about this and what he had realized: He could write for ten minutes each day. Simple. Clear. Doable. “I may not be able to write a novel or even a short story very quickly,” he mused. “But I can write for ten minutes each day, and soon enough, there’ll be a book.” He read three of his ten-minute fictions to us: Lovely, concise stories a few paragraphs long. Any one of the three could be expanded into a full piece of fiction.

One of my many shortcomings as a writer is that I have started this blog and promised a new post every couple of weeks, but I haven’t kept that promise faithfully. For some periods, I post regularly. But then spaces of time pass when I don’t. Often, it’s because I’m absorbed in my current work-in-progress, and don’t make time for the blog. Other times, it’s that I feel at a loss for a meaningful subject to write about. This strikes me as odd—dozens of topics related to Psyche, Spirit, Story interest me. So why do I dry up when pondering a blog post? I suspect the answer is that it takes too long to do justice to those ideas—or so I thought, until Dwayne changed my mind with his simple idea: Write for ten minutes.

If I take ten minutes out of each writing day, I’d be able to create five or more blog posts each week. And writing for ten minutes is a cinch. Take this post: So far, I’ve been writing for nine minutes and seventeen seconds.

So here’s my experiment: Like Dwayne, I am going to write for ten minutes each day on a topic related to this blog. I’ll post once a week. Next week, I’ll post about a problem I was having with a scene in my work-in-progress and how I solved it (I already wrote the post, in ten minutes and four seconds!).

And I’d like to ask you, dear reader, to send me your comments about how this experiment works for you. Ten minutes. See you next week.

 

Newspeak at Work

What is Doublespeak?

As a writer – of fiction, outside of this blog – I’m always intrigued by imaginative uses of words to communicate, and appalled by equally imaginative uses of words to distort and prevent authentic communication. My sense of intrigue (in both its meanings) has been piqued by the verbal performances of members of the administration, who find curious words to convey their “alternative facts,” that is, their untruths. This, of course, has a venerable history, and not only in politics; but it is the political use of “doublespeak” that I want to talk about here.

Doublespeak, also called “double talk,” happens when one changes or somehow distorts words to make something unpleasant or offensive sound positive. 

The word was given to us by George Orwell in his prescient novel, 1984, which has seen a remarkable surge in sales since the election to the U.S. presidency of one of the world’s masters of doublespeak, Donald J. Trump. You may have heard (incessantly) about him.

Orwell’s novel, if you’re not familiar with it, is a chilling description of life under a dictatorship that controls – and watches, literally – every aspect of human life. One cannot even use the toilet without being watched by the ubiquitous telescreeens. (On an ironic twist of that meme, we now carry our own telescreens – which, as Orwell predicted, can track us everywhere.) As a key feature of the intellectual and moral devaluation of human discourse, the government practices – and insists the “citizens” practice – doublespeak, based on the ability to think (and therefore to say) something, while knowing full well it is utterly false. In order to soften the dissonance, the technique involves using euphemisms and word-distortions.

“Doublespeak” Flows from “Newspeak”

In 1984, Orwell describes how the government of Oceania (the fictional dictatorship) invents a new language whose primary character is to “rid itself of unnecessary words.” For instance, since the word “good” implies the absence of “bad,” there is no need for the word bad. Since the word “peace” implies the absence of war, there is no need for the word war. Instead, prefixes suffice: “Ungood” and “unpeace” cover “bad” and “war.”

The point is that words the government wishes to hide for any reason can be simply be put out of use. The concepts they express will soon follow suit and wither away. Take the case of “collateral damage.” How often do we hear this euphemism for the murder of innocent civilians? This reminds me of something I was taught in college about the Confucian emperors’ practice, when ascending to the throne, of issuing a new dictionary. The goal was to ensure that everyone could use the right meaning for words. The key difference with Orwellian Newspeak, though, is that the aim of the Confucians was to facilitate clear communication across a vast, polyglot empire, whereas the aim of the Oceania government was, to the contrary, to ensure an absence of genuine communication among the citizens. By doing so, the government aimed to control their minds. “Through his creation and explanation of Newspeak, Orwell warns the reader that a government that creates the language and mandates how it is used can control the minds of its citizens.”

Examples of Doublespeak

We already live in an era of vast doublespeak. The website “Your Dictionary,” from which I got my definition of doublespeak above, gives a list of 30 examples we all use in our everyday lives. Have you ever said “John passed” instead of “John died”? Put your dog “to sleep” instead of “euthanized” him? Protested “capital punishment” instead of “state-murder”?

It’s no surprise that many examples of doublespeak come from our government, and always reflect some action or decision that will harm someone. “Pre-emptive strikes” (as opposed to “unprovoked attacks”) have become commonplace. “Ethnic cleansing” is more sanitary than “genocide.”

On the domestic political front, we have seen in recent months a significant uptick in doublespeak . We now talk about “making health care affordable” (Paul Ryan) rather than “taking away people’s health care insurance.” The decision to defund Planned Parenthood (for instance) is spoken of as “protecting the unborn” rather than as “depriving poor women of health care.”

And of course, there is the blanket, one-size-fits-all response to re-phrasing those in the direction of more honesty. Saying that defunding Planned Parenthood, for instance, is “depriving poor women of health care” is attacked from the conservatives as being “failed liberal cant,” despite the fact that it is a much more accurate—and honest—phrase than “protecting the unborn.” (My source here is FactCheck.org.)

On the military side, we hear the phrase “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD), which are presumed to be different in kind from “conventional weapons.” But is “the mother of all bombs” that was dropped on an almost-vacant area in Afganistan last week really different in kind from a chemical weapons attack? Sure, the “Mother” (is the word meant to lull us into feeling secure—“Mom’s on the watch”?) only killed (reports vary) 36 or 94 ISIS soldiers. But the bomb was dropped in a nearly deserted corner of Afghanistan; drop the Mother-of-all-bombs on a city and count the bodies.

Doublespeak Is Doublespeak, No Matter Who Says It

No one disputes that ours is a dangerous world, a precarious time. The man who controls our nuclear codes ordered, from his dining table, an airstrike against a Syrian airbase because photos of dead babies made him emotional. Meanwhile, North Korea has succeeded in provoking the Trump team into escalating the tension on the Korean peninsula—at a moment when there is no viable government in the south.

Vice-President Mike Pence went to Seoul, South Korea, and offered stern words to the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un. At the end of his statement—filled with innuendo and, yes, doublespeak—we heard this: “There was a period of strategic patience but the era of strategic patience is over.”

Strategic patience?

Mr. Vice-president, did you mean “peace”?

And were you telling us, with the “era of strategic patience” now over, that we are entering a period of war?

Why Not Speak Straight?

“The idea behind Newspeak is that, as language must become less expressive, the mind is more easily controlled.” I find it hard to imagine hoards of citizens carrying signs and marching in the streets against “the end of strategic patience” (that is, war with North Korea).

I cannot imagine the people of the United States rising in anger at Trumpist efforts to “protect the unborn” (that is, to defund women’s health care).

I cannot see my fellow citizens standing shoulder to shoulder in rainy spring weather to protest “tax cuts for the middle class” that in fact actually are for the wealthy, such as Donald Trump, and that – for many working class and single parents –  would result in a tax increase.

What I can envision, though, is citizens learning to see through the doublespeak. Even with telescreens glued to our noses, most Americans have a healthy dose of skepticism about politicians. Sure, the base of the Republican party has acted foolishly, deluded by the doublespeak, but the base’s bedrock remains common sense. They know that drought is drought, even if the president declaims, “There is no drought” in California, it’s just “them shoving the water into the sea.” Many of the people living in the Great Plains have family memories of the Dust Bowl, and they recognize that dust-bowl conditions in California’s central valley are dust-bowl conditions. No amount of doublespeak can change what people know in their bones.

And most of us know that “the end of an era of strategic peace” means a promise of war.

An Impoverishment of Language

 

“Ecumenical” vs. “Interfaith”: Words reflect views

I’m a writer, so I have two loves: Words, and the sentences they create. No, three: Michele, my wife and best reader. So it was of interest to me when Michele mentioned the phrase “interfaith dialogue.” She’s Jewish, and I’m a former Catholic and dabbler in theologies far and wide. We were talking about dialog among different practitioners of various religious groups, and she said, “Didn’t that used to be called ecumenical?”

It did. And I want to say that the switch of words reflects an impoverishing of our language—and of our worldview.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, members of differing churches or religious groups talked to one another, attempting to understand what each group contributes to our experience of the sacred, we called our conversations “ecumenical.” Now, such conversations are called “interfaith dialog.”

I mourn the change of the term-of-art from ecumenical to interfaith, because I think it signals a loss of something precious: The notion of “at-home-ness.”

The first two syllables of the word ecumenical derive from the Greek oikos, which means, variously, a house, a home, our family, or our neighborhood or community. The oikos is exactly that intangible something that makes a house a home.

Oikos is also the root for a number of other English words, including ecology. Ecumenical is most often used to refer to work toward Christian unity—the hoped for at-home-ness of the now-separate churches; but the term also refers to gatherings of multiple faiths, as when Jews, Christians, and Muslims meet to discuss their common ground in the domain of the sacred.

Or consider the word ecology. Does it not connote something ‘home-like,’ familial, domestic? We share a home—that home being the world, whether the world we call “Earth,” or the lived world of our homes and towns, or the natural home we call our ecology. Our ecology is the “home” environment we share with multiple species, all of us depending on our environment—and each other—for survival.

Sadly, for me, the word “interfaith” has largely supplanted “ecumenical” when we talk about dialog among differing churches or religions about their common life in the realm of the sacred. When we say “interfaith,” our language is transactional—something will be exchanged between (inter) the participants. My sadness is, the word “interfaith” loses the nuance of home, of the oikos, a belonging to a shared world. It loses all that “home” means to us.

Subtly, and I’d like to say tragically, in transactional thinking we get more concerned with what we can learn from or give to each other, rather than searching for our common ground, our shared home, our oikos. In our ecumenical dialogs in the 1960s and 1970s, our goal was to discover what we shared together, what we intuited together about the sacred and about the obligations our intuitions imposed on us in this world. Now, “inter-faith dialog” is about giving and getting: What can your faith give me to enhance my own? It’s about transactions.

In this spirit, certain Catholic parishes put on “Seder dinners” in their social halls, resembling the Jewish observance in “interfaith” reach-outs, whose objectives include demonstrating not only that Catholics respect their ancestral, if outmoded, Judaism, but also that Jesus’s Last Supper once and for all superseded the Paschal meal. We’ll acknowledge the Seder meal, if you’ll acknowledge us the True Faith. Quid pro quo.

 

Transactions need not give life

Transactional language is about exchanges, not about life as we actually live it. Indeed, at root, life at home, life lived with our families and neighbors, with those who share our oikos, is mostly non-transactional. When my children were young, for instance, the only really transactional relationship we had was that they did certain household chores (doing the dishes, cleaning their rooms) for which we gave them an “allowance.” (I’ll note that giving an allowance in return for work has its advocates as well as its detractors, but that’s for another discussion.) Beyond that allowance, our shared family and neighborhood life, while there are some actual transactions, far transcends them. And I think most families are the same.

Family life and neighborhood life and community life in general—life lived in the oikos—give intangible, non-quantifiable rewards: Love, companionship, mutual support, and the like. Equally, life in the oikos burdens us with obligations and responsibilities to one another that often are impossible to tally up or to balance against the rewards. There is no quantity that can be assigned to sitting hour after hour at the bedside of one’s sick child or washing the hair of one’s aged parent.

Transactions, on the other hand, involve no intangibles. I select my groceries off the shelf and I pay the checkout person, and I leave. That concludes the transaction. Love, companionship, mutual support need not figure in the transaction at all. Professional diplomacy is another example: Diplomats remain polite, but there is no requirement that they like one another or do anything more than negotiate issues in their own interests.

The corporation, even before Citizens United, is the model par excellance of transactionalism. The corporation gives out its products or services and we pay for them. We need not like or admire Exxon Mobil, but we do pay for its fossil fuels. In return, Exxon Mobil need not care a whit for our communities or our environments, our ecologies, it need only produce a reliable stream of oil and gas. Nowadays, the corporation is the core organizing principle of our public lives, if not our homes. (The corporate thinkers, of course, claim that they organize themselves and their worlds as a household, which is a lie.)

So what?

We live in a world, and especially in a nation, utterly enthralled with the corporate ethos. We’ve sold our soul to the corporation. The heart of all corporate relationships is profit, that is, winnings, and the soul of profit is competition, a sibling of transaction. We adore sports. And sports are competition as transactional conflict organized by means, methods, and goals. As long as the competitors agree to the organizing means, methods, and goals, the conflict does not flare out of control.

Sports obey that rule. But what about political or corporate competition? To the degree that politicians or corporations—or nations—do NOT agree on the parameters, the means, methods, and goals of the struggle, the danger that our conflicts will flare out of control is real and enormous. We see this in Syria currently. We see it in the American government. Essentially transactional, corporate, and competitive, American government and politics are no longer about our neighborhoods, our lived lives, our nation-as-home, but are about ginning up phony conflicts and then organizing them as a competition. To our chagrin (and loss), our politics allows competition with cheating.

Judging by its actions, our Republicans feel little obligation to the poor or the sick, to immigrants, to gays and lesbians and the transgendered folks, or to anyone not like themselves. The current leaders of our nation appear not to feel any responsibility to make life in the country more neighborly. Nor to tell us the truth, truth without which no family and no community can thrive.

In other words, they seem to have no sense of the ecumenical, of the oikos, only of the transaction, the competition for gain.

Is there room for principles?

In a transactional world, the ruling principle is quid pro quo—What do I get for what I give? Don’t think that I’m proposing that there is anything wrong with quid pro quo, as far as it goes (which is not very far). I’m suggesting only that it reflects a poverty of thought, feeling, and spirituality. Within quid pro quo there is no room for love, for generosity, for unasked-for humor, or for spontaneous help, for all the parts of life that make a house a home or a group of homes a neighborhood. I have no objection to paying the grocery store for groceries, but I would object to demanding that my wife pay me when I cook them for her. Paying the hardware store for a snow shovel? Sure. But I’d rebel if my elderly neighbor was forced to pay me to shovel her sidewalk. There’s scant space inside quid pro quo for the realities of family life, neighborhood life, community life. In those more home-like realms, there are other principles at play than quid pro quo.

In a transaction-only world (and world-view), other human values—care, loyalty (even to those who hurt me), compassion, giving to the poor—die of thirst. The very things that make life livable don’t figure in transactional thinking. And so, when religiously serious people talk across the divides between their faiths, we now call it “interfaith” dialog. We don’t use the word ecumenical, which connotes what faith really is about: Being at home amid the sacred.

I’m making this simple point because our language reflects our thinking and our thinking reflects the way we perceive reality. If you think this is a transaction-only world, I suggest that your language reflects that. Pay attention to the words you—and I—use, and especially to the words of the people who talk about the things that matter in our lived lives.

Tasty Appetizers from My Four Novels

Many of you have read and enjoyed my first novel, Climbing the Coliseum, and many of you have been asking when the next one, Nobody’s Safe Here, will be coming out. I have some exciting news on that, which I’ll be sharing in a week or so. In the meantime, I though you might be interested in reading brief blurbs from the back covers of all four of my books:

  • Climbing the Coliseum, published June 6, 2014, available from Amazon.com, from Xlibris.com, and your local bookstore on request.
  • Nobody’s Safe Here, to be published soon by Black Rose Writing.
  • The Bishop Burned the Lady, coming in 2017.
  • A Patriot’s Campaign, coming in 2017 or early 2018.

Climbing the Coliseum

ClimbCover-252px

Psychologist Ed Northrup, desperate to escape his unhappy life, faces a cluster of mysteries: Why was 14-year-old Grace Ellonson abandoned and where is her mother? Where does rancher Vic Sobstak go when he sneaks off the ranch at night? Why has Vic’s church-organist wife, Maggie, turned up almost fatally drunk? Who’s hanging racist flyers around town? When Ed helps Deputy  Andi Pelton investigate, no one knows the answers, but they’ll soon find out—disastrously. Amid the chaos of the mysteries’ violent collision, Ed, Andi, and Grace face the most formidable decision of their lives.

Nobody’s Safe Here

nsh_front_cover

When cattle baron Magnus Anderssen turns suicidal, psychologist Ed Northrup struggles to help him find the cause – a tragic event buried deep in Magnus’s unconscious. Meanwhile, Deputies Andi Pelton and Boyd Ordrew clash as they investigate Jared Hansen, a boy caught with a weapons cache and a paranoid plan to kill his schoolmates – and a clear record with no previous problems or suffering to explain them! They recruit Ed in the search for whatever caused his radical  transformation from a great kid to a psychotic killer. Will Magnus survive his harrowing therapy? Will Jared’s insanity be resolved in time? Will Andi’s conflict with Deputy Brad Ordrew and Ed’s radical plan to save the boy destroy their romance?  Another story of good people facing extraordinary challenges in beautiful Monastery Valley. . .

The Bishop Burned the Lady (cover design in progress)

A mysterious fire in a remote forest clearing; a young woman’s charred bones in the ashes; unexplained tracks in the rutted road – the only clues Deputy Andi Pelton has to what happened – until she meets a hostile old man living alone in a forest compound that obviously houses many people. Sex trafficking in the Montana wilderness? Psychologist Ed Northrup wants to marry her, but Andi puts him off, absorbed in the investigation–and in a struggle with her own demons. Ed agrees to wit and to help her with the case. What they discover leads them deep into the horrific reality of prison gangs, cults, and murder. When Andi finds the mastermind behind the murder, she nearly loses her life arresting him. And then she must deal with Ed’s proposal . . .

A Patriot’s Campaign (cover design in progress)

“Shots Fired!” The 911 call sends Deputy Andi Pelton to the scene of a murder of a young boy in a garage. The home-owner readily admits killing him, claiming he was “standing my patriotic ground” against an intruder. But as Andi begins the investigation, what she discovers casts doubt on the shooter’s story–and his motive. Her investigation, though, is complicated when Sheriff Ben Stewart, Andi’s mentor, is forced out of the re-election campaign against Deputy Brad Ordrew, who has promised to fire Andi if he wins. Andi has to confront the fact that Ordrew will run unopposed–unless she enters the race against him. Ordrew claims he will run a “patriotic” sheriff’s office, but Andi sees his plans as a cover for militarizing the department. Should she run, which could interfere with her murder inquiry? Or should she do the job she swore to do: concentrate on the murder and take her chances with Ordrew? Which is the truly patriotic thing to do? And who’s the patriot?

I hope these brief teasers stimulate your interest and that you’ll be on the lockout for Nobody’s Safe Here when it comes out. Watch this space!

Why Do I Write Fiction? Really.

Last weekend, I gave a brief talk to the North Idaho Writers League at the library in Sandpoint, Idaho. It was informal, a part of their regular meeting. I’d been asked to speak about my “journey” as a writer, but we focused almost exclusively on my experiences self-publishing and marketing my book. When it became clear that I do not make a living by my writing, one of the members asked, “So why do you write? Really.”

My marketing slogan, if you will, is “telling the stories of ordinary people facing extraordinary challenges.” But I knew he wanted something more than a stock answer. And, I realized as I thought about it, I did too. So why do I write, really?

Because I’m tired of the news

EveningNews

 

Like fiction, the news thrives on conflict. I’ve got nothing against stories that are chock-full of conflict; I love reading them and I love writing them. The news, though, stops with the conflict, seldom showing the resolution to the conflict. Sure, now and then a “feel-good” story gets coverage: heart-warming bits, a cancer cured, a family reunited after a tornado, a lost puppy found.

My years as a psychotherapist woke me up to something: The world of real human suffering is also a world of resolutions. The endings might not always be happy, but they can nevertheless be fulfilling. Through their pain, people do find new dimensions of themselves and new pathways in life, and often they find each other as well. Those endings, though they’re at the heart of everyday lived experience, seldom make the news. I’m tired of being told about tragedies and corruption and human folly and being left there, with nothing but a sour taste in my soul.

That’s one reason I write the fiction I write—to show that real suffering, real conflict, does not always and only end in defeat. Because, in real life, it often doesn’t.

Because John Donne was right

JohnDonne

 

It’s easy–and wrong–to imagine that people enduring serious conflict or suffering are alone in it, and imagining that they are not like the rest of us is an easy dodge. It’s not just schadenfreude. Trouble, pain, and suffering are abhorrent; it’s only human to use cognitive tricks to convince ourselves that we’re safe from them. And when trouble does strike, isn’t it common to think it’s an aberration, that it’s not natural? That’s why when illness or trouble happens, people often ask, “Why me?” As if conflict and woe were somehow not normal, not inevitable in everyone’s life.

It’s not so. Michele, receiving news of cancer, didn’t ask that. She asked, “Why not me?” In asking that, she captured the spirit of John Donne’s famous lines from his Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, number 17 (please remember that he wrote these words in the year 1624, so pardon the odd punctuation and the sexism):

No Man is an Island, entire of it self; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; if a Clod be washed away by the Sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a Promontory were, as well as if a Manor of thy friends, or of thine own were; Any Man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

Because community matters

I write stories to set myself against that myth that sufferers and suffering are abnormal, isolated from other people. I want my fiction to suggest that we are all part of a community. We may be “clods,” but we remain a “piece of the Continent, a part of the main,” and if one of us suffers, to some perhaps mysterious extent, we all suffer. This is a consoling part of the Buddha’s First Noble Truth–all life is suffering.

A first corollary of this is that some sort of community, gathering itself around the sufferer, brings the energies of resolution. If it’s true that we don’t experience conflict alone (although it may feel like we do), we don’t recover alone, either. A second corollary is that if a sufferer’s relevant community withholds its energies, the sufferer cannot recover.

My neighbor, Larry Keith, alerted me to this dimension of community in my fiction. He’d just read Climbing the Coliseum and we were talking about it over coffee. ClimbCover-252pxIt’s fitting, I suppose, that he and I live in a town named Hope, which is (with East Hope, just across the road) a community of around 300 people. People in Hope (and East Hope) help each other all the time. One day after Michele had surgery and couldn’t get around on her own, I had to leave for the afternoon. Three women came over and stayed with her while I was away. Community. I hadn’t noticed it myself, but the minute Larry pointed it out, I knew he was right: my book is not just about “ordinary people facing extraordinary challenges,” it’s also a story of a community of people whose involvement with those “ordinary people” is what helps them through their “extraordinary challenges.”

Though I wasn’t conscious of it until Larry remarked on it, I write to capture that fact of our embeddedness in community, that we are not islands, entire of ourselves.

What Travel Taught Me about Writing

Michele and I recently took a three-week trip, and during it, I realized some things about writing that I hadn’t really paid attention to before. They had to do with the nature of space and time, the importance of attention, and the ability of the brainmind to invest imagination with reality. Let me describe what I learned.

“Real” Space & Time vs. “Fictional” Space & Time

Disorientation

At the start of a stay in a new place, I often feel disoriented, even in places I once was familiar with. For a while, the relation of one area to another is hard to grasp. Distances aren’t easy to calculate, and things are either closer together or farther apart than I think (even after using MapQuest). With no familiar mountains to orient me, my directional sense struggles until I create some familiar landmarks. Nothing is “homely.”Heidegger Martin Heidegger used that word, in German, to characterize the nature of being-human—to be human is to be “at home, in place.” (If you’d like to read more, go here.)

I noticed that, without the routines of home, time in a strange place also seems distorted, and for a couple of days, I find it harder to gauge how long events, such as a meal with friends, last without the familiar time-cues I have at home. Where the sun “should be,” as a cue to what time it is, doesn’t work as well until I get my bearings in space. Space and time flow into and out of one another—which of course is the notion behind the word, spacetime.

However, when I opened my laptop to work on my novel, Nobody’s Safe Here, I was immediately immersed in familiar spacetime. Nothing in that fictional world of Monastery Valley had changed, the landmarks are familiar, distances are known and stable, time is clear. What’s happening?

 

Attention and Virtual Worlds in the Brainmind

The disorientation we feel in strange places highlights the importance of paying attention to space and time. Not knowing where a destination is in relation to one’s current place forces one to attend to cues (maps, signs, etc.). Not knowing how long a trip will take forces one to pay closer attention to discovering both distances and traveling conditions. To ride ten miles in a car takes a different time than to ride the ten miles in a bus, or to walk them.

When I was working on the novel, though, the fictional spacetime took on all the “reality” of the outer world of my journey. Why is this?

Cognitive scientists have demonstrated that the brain treats imagined events the same as it treats “real” events. For example, on a hike, if I misperceive a large black dog to be a black bear, the brain signals a “fear” response that triggers all the same neurotransmitter and hormonal responses that would happen if it were actually a bear.

Many religious traditions take good advantage of this fact. DaidoLooriWhen a devout practitioner visualizes the deity or a venerable person (saints, bodhisattvas, arhats, etc.), the more deeply he or she attends to the visualization (that is, to the imaginary presence), the more “real” the imagined beings become and the more potent the image becomes for altering consciousness and experience.

 

What This Means for Writers

JohnGardnerJohn Gardner talked often about a writer of fiction must maintain a fictional “dream,” not allowing flaws in the writing, plot, or structure of the book to “awaken” the reader from the fictional dream. That dream can be thought of as the reader’s attention to the fictional world’s space, time, action, character, and so on. Becoming immersed in the fictional dream is possible because of the brain’s ability to treat the imagined as real.

For fiction writers (and this may be true of successful non-fiction as well), this inherent brain-capacity in our readers is an invitation to create absorbing, gripping, and emotionally salient worlds in our books and stories, and to ensure by diligent editing and proofreading that no mistakes wake our readers up from that dream-world.

5 Things I Didn’t Know about Self-Publishing

Ignorance.Knowledge

All right, you’ve written that great manuscript and it’s time to self-publish. When I reached that milestone back in 2014, there were five important things I didn’t know. Well, okay, there are dozens and dozens of things I didn’t know, like the difference between the ISBN-10 and the ISBN-13, but those dozens weren’t quite as significant as the Big Five.Here they are.

  1. No Matter Our Reverence for Words, “Free” Never Means “Free.”

You will either do the tasks that need doing, or you’ll pay somebody to do them. Period. There are almost no “free” publishing services. CreateSpace advertises free set up, and IngramSpark waives its set-up fee ($49.00) if you order 50 books. The set up, though, is like making a dinner reservation at a big-name restaurant—sure, the reservation is free, but it’s the meal that counts, so get out your credit card.

CreateSpace, for instance, has free set up, but a book needs a cover (so people can judge it, right?). Of course, unless you’re a graphic designer, you likely will end up with an ugly cover and a failure of an interior. So, you hire somebody, probably for something in the neighborhood of $500.00. Oh, you’ll also need to design the book’s interior, which is a complex business. You can hire a book designer, or you can buy book interior templates from a variety of sources. For example, you can get very nice templates for the interior of your book for as little as $57.00 at Joel Friedlander’s website. Of course, you probably will need to study Joel’s tutorials in order not to botch the job, unless you’re already good at it.

Cover and interior design are only the start of things you’ll need to buy. You’ll purchase an ISBN (International Standard Book Number) for each type of book you’re publishing (one for a print version, another for the e-book) and a barcode for each ISBN. Bowker, the only source for ISBNs in the United States, sells ten ISBNs for $295—if you want only one, the ISBN is $125.00. Buying just one means either you put out a print version, or an e-book, but you can’t do both. Buy ten.

There are numerous other up front costs to get the book produced and distributed (on Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, and a few other places). That just gets the book out into the world, where, unless you do more—or buy more—no one will even know it’s there.

  1. Hooray, Your Book is Published! But Who Noticed?

Congratulations, your masterpiece is ensconced on Amazon.com. Your family and friends visit the page and buy a copy. Every day, you visit your page on Amazon.com and admire it. After friends and family are done buying, your sales stop. Cold. Desperate, you search the web, and discover that there’s a whole sub-industry providing services and products to help self-publishers get their book(s) noticed in the marketplace. The operative word in that sentence is “noticed,” not “sold.” Unnoticed means unsold, so noticed is the first step. About that sub-industry, did I mention that “providing services and products” translates as “selling” them? So once again, you can decide to do it all yourself and spend nothing—which means you need substantial savvy in Internet discoverability (that is, SEO—search engine optimization) and social media connectivity. Otherwise, it’s back to the marketplace for help. Naturally, such help, like any kind of professional help, can be dear. Without it, though, your book won’t be noticed, and there’ll be very little chance of getting any return on the investment you made in producing the book. (I thought word-of-mouth would generate sales. Well, it did. Enough to recoup exactly 0.07% of my expenses.)

  1. Getting from “Noticed” to “Sold.”

Between “being noticed” and “selling books” cost me more than getting the book produced and distributed. I knew I’d have to do some marketing, but I had no idea how. So I bought “services and products” from another sub-industry devoted to marketing (not just to “getting noticed”). Some of those services were worse than worthless—the ones I bought from the company that published the book, for instance. Many, if not most, of the larger self-publishing companies sell relatively cheap publishing packages (“Enormous deal! Publish your book for only . . .!”), and then bundle marketing packages for high prices that you can find far less expensively on the Internet. For instance, my company (who shall remain nameless) sold me three professional reviews (Kirkus, Clarion, and BlueInk) for $2400.00. I bought. Then later, online, I found that if I’d purchased them directly from the reviewers, individually, my cost for all three reviews would have been $1300.00.

Another example: For a “mere” $500.00, I purchased from my publisher an email press release that the company promised to send to 1200 media outlets. It was opened eleven times. Although I did sell about twenty books in the ten days after the press release went out, those buyers were book club members who were friends of mine. There were no sales in any of the markets to which the press release was sent. Hmmm. $500.00 wasted.

Then I went to Keokee Creative in Sandpoint, ID (near where I live), a small, four-person marketing shop. For $85.00, they wrote a punchier press release (when I read it, I thought, “I want to buy this book!”), and I sent it to 50 media outlets in Montana, Idaho, and Washington state. It was opened 36 times and from it, I got a radio interview and two newspaper mentions. In the week after the radio interview, I sold 37 books, the biggest week I’ve had. $85.00.

  1. Okay, I’ll Do the Work Myself. I Just Need a Little Coaching.

Even if you do the actual marketing tasks yourself, unless you have solid experience in book marketing, you’ll very likely need tutoring. And tutoring costs can be as high as all the other costs. Some of these costs for tutorials, webinars, manuals, and books on marketing are well worth it; others, not so much. More to the point, in this sub-industry live multitudes of marketing consultants and coaches. How can you tell if a coach’s or consultant’s fee is money well spent? Here is my four-step method, which I learned the hard way, because when I first published, I didn’t even know that all these consultants and coaches and helpers even existed.

Step 1. Scour the Internet for “how to market a book” or similar combinations. Read dozens of web sites. Check out services and prices. Learn the jargon. Alternately, ask your writer friends for references to marketing consultants who have helped them.

Step 2. When you find a site or a consultant that appeals to you, look for their email list-building offer. Nearly always, they’ll offer you something free (a download, most often) in return for your email address. Sign up and get their offering. (Yes, you’ll start getting weekly or even daily emails from them, which at first makes you feel quite important, before making you feel numb. You can always unsubscribe from the useless ones.)

Step 3. Evaluate the free stuff you get in Step 2 to see what works for you. Some of the free information is, ahem, worthless. You’ll know. Discard those, and unsubscribe to that consultant’s email list. Other downloads, though, are packed with useful advice or guidance.

Step 4. When I learn something useful or new from an author’s free stuff, I pay attention to their paid offerings. When I need to learn something they teach for a price, I pay them.

Here’s one example: I was stuck when it came to optimizing my Facebook presence. There’s a ton of free advice about that floating around, but almost all of it is basic common sense (“Don’t post ‘Please buy my book!’ on Facebook!”), not the sophisticated help I needed. One day, I came across Frances Caballo’s site, “Social Media Just for Writers”, brimming with information that I found both useful (and new to me, a rookie). So I got a free download of something in return for giving her my email address. Some time later, when Frances advertised her “social media audit” (she evaluated my blog, Facebook and LinkedIn pages, and my web site) for $99.00, I bought it—and her feedback about my “presence” proved to be enormously valuable.

  1. Writing is Half the Job. Marketing is the Second Half.

I love to write. I don’t love to market. Yet, honestly, I now spend about half my time doing the latter. And I’m okay with that. I promised myself I’d devote three years to marketing my books. I’m ten months in at this point, and I’ve gone from begrudging every minute I spend on it to actually liking some aspects of it. I can’t complain (although I do). My book (in my expert opinion) is worth reading, but people aren’t going to read it unless they notice it and are inspired to pick it up. So, writing leads naturally to marketing—because nobody’s going to step in and do it for me!

(You may have noticed that in this whole article I have not marketed my book, Climbing the Coliseum even once, or asked you to visit my web site, www.BillPercyBooks.com, either! I’m proud that I resisted the temptation. Incidentally, today the book is only $17.49 on Amazon.com.)

Why Do I Write?

A number of people have asked me why I write fiction, after a long career writing academic and training materials in psychology. Superficially, my answer is that I love to tell stories.

 

Once upon a time

 

Forty years of practicing psychotherapy and teaching grad students provided a rich storehouse of stories, from all kinds of people. In some ways, telling these stories is a way of honoring my former clients and students, who taught me so much about the suffering and exhilaration of being human. Of course, such stories are never exact retellings—all are disguised, altered, a detail plucked from here, an outcome from there. None of my former clients could see themselves in any character or in what happens to the characters. But I was telling stories I had heard from people who deserved to have their stories honored.

However, the more I work in fiction, the more I realize that something else is at work as well. At first, when I wrote, I thought like a psychologist. There is a necessary separation between therapist and client, and looking back, I see that unconsciously I kept that distance from my characters. That early writing was not so hot, obviously. Now, as the years—and the books—multiply, I find that I am thinking increasingly as a human being, not as a shrink. To some of my characters, I have grown attached; others I am angry with; but I’m no longer detached.

In my writing now, I see a hunger to enter into the lived experience of my characters, not as an analyst or a therapist, but as a compatriot in this beautiful and troubled world. TroubledWorld BeautifulWorld It seems to me that I am finding my way, paragraph by paragraph, into old age and the final chapters of my own life. I’m learning what it means to change, to accept but never to give in, to let go without letting up. Although my characters include teens, middle-agers, and the elderly, each of them offers me insights into what it means to be alive in a world stocked with challenges at every age. And as these insights accumulate within me, again without my conscious intent, I find myself occasionally content being just who I am, which is a novel experience for me.

There is also a deeper level to why I write, of which I’m only dimly becoming aware. To write fiction is to create a world and to people it. Other writers have spoken of this. Writing fiction is, in that sense, being God. I don’t intend blasphemy, but rather to convey the amazing dignity inherent in creating. According to the Genesis story, you and I are made in God’s image; in creating, we stumble into what must be, except perhaps for compassion and love, our highest nature. What humbles me as I write is the glimpse I’m given of a genuine sense of responsibility for those characters I create. I’ve discovered an obligation to do well by them, to be honest about them—and with them—and to create situations that not only test their mettle, but contain, no matter how deeply hidden, a chance for the best in them to come forth. As in real life, of course, some do not find the best in themselves, but as their creator, I find myself compelled to give them their chance, to allow them their crossroads.

Crossroads

This is an odd sensation, and as I say, I’m only becoming aware of it and what it might mean. To be responsible for and to one’s creatures—what an enormous delight.