Sunday, February 17, 2013

Wanted: Tribe - No Spam

A few weeks ago I posted an article on my "Stuff I Wish I Knew when I was 20" blog about hanging out with the people who will lift you up, who are most like the person you want to be. Another similar post discussed pursuing those who have succeeded where you would like to succeed. Not to be a stalker, but to seek their council and advice.

For the writer, this is difficult. At least it used to be, way back in the dark ages before facebook and twitter. Now we can jump online and find a group of like-minded folks, what Seth Godin calls a "Tribe." Heck, you can decide one day to be a Christian Boston Terrier Mystery Novelist and find a group of people within five minutes who share your passion for Christianity, Mysteries, and hyper-bouncy dogs. Indeed, the age of social media has made finding and joining a tribe as easy as finding a re-run of MASH on satellite TV. Friend an author Edie Melson even wrote a book on the subject (writers must write a book on every subject, it's just what we do). Check out Edie's post and book over yonder at Novel Rocket.

What Seth or Edie don't bring up is that we may have come full circle. Where once anyone calling herself a novelist would have had a lonely existence anywhere outside of New York, now this same aspiring author will find a dozen facebook groups, twitter hashtags, and Google+ Communities just full of folks who share her passion.

This is where the trouble begins. So many people have figured out that social media opens up a whole new world for marketing that they do nothing but that--market. I can go onto twitter right now, type #acfw, and find the same three people posting the same one line sales pitch for their latest romance. Over. And over. And over. I wonder if these folks sit down for a cup of coffee with their BFFs and say, every two minutes, "She's from the wrong side of the tracks and he's a billionaire. What can they possibly have in common? Everything!" Then plop down a book order form.

Seriously guys? What part of the "social" in social media are you missing?

One of my friends over on Google+ coined the phrase "#linktoilet." I find it fitting. It's as if the ability to copy and paste a link has given us all license to turn our facebook walls into the Times Square of the internet. Really, I'd much rather know what you had for dinner than to see a constant advertisement for your latest book. And so would your readers.

Social media is not a place for advertising. The new marketplace demands, more than ever before, that you establish relationships. We are the most marketed to generation in world history. Just like the survivors of the Bubonic Plague developed an immunity to the disease in Europe, 21st century Americans have developed a very strong immunity to marketing tactics.

You've got to be their friend before they'll be your customer, or in our case, your reader. People are looking for tribes to join, not billboards to read.

I've probably hurt some feelings. You're a writer, you should be used to it. Your marketing approach demands the same tough criticism as your prose. Once you've received the label "Spammer," you would have been better off if you'd never started a facebook or twitter account. It's an easy trap to fall into. Don't let it happen to you.

Start now. Go onto your favorite social network, resist the temptation to post a link to your book, and say "Hello" to someone. No links. No self-promotion. Just socializing. You can do this, people. Be strong. Go find your tribe.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Time Thoughts

My current novel, or series as it turns out, uses time as a central theme. It's almost to the point that time is a character in itself. No, time isn't going to get up and start speaking, though for anyone over the age of forty, it often seems that way.

I guess this has a spark in the back of my cobbled brain for many years, ever since my college physics classes. I loved physics so much that I considered making it my major instead of engineering (my physics teacher at Lawrence Tech University asked me one day, "Are you a physics major or only an engineer?").

One of my favorite topics was Einstein's Theory of Relativity. That's the one that states "Relatives visiting on holidays appear to stay for days when only a few hours has passed." Okay, just kidding.

Most of us are familiar with the simple version of relativity. If you're on a train going 100mph and another train passes you at 110mph, from your viewpoint, the other train is moving very slowly, even though it is passing yours. That's the basic principle.

Some of you may even know that the theory applies to traveling near light speed. If you hop into a spaceship and travel near light speed, you'll come back in a few hours to find that twenty years has passed on Earth. Your twin brother will be an old man. Pretty cool, huh?

The movie Genesis Code does an excellent job of explaining how this applies to the book of Genesis and the seven days of creation. The movie may or may not have it right. I have my opinion as I'm sure every other Christian does. But the concept is staggering.

I think all Christians will agree that time through the eyes of God is completely different than the way we view it. To us, it is uni-directional constant. There must be a beginning and an end. We measure it in known constants like years, days, minutes, and seconds. But what if, in the eyes of God and other residents of Heaven, time were not so clear cut? What if it were more like an idea, or an emotion, something that really has no units of measurement?

Or, as is explained by Einstien and  Genesis Code, the units of measurement aren't constant? Five minutes today may have been shorter than five minutes near the start of creation, or when, as stated earlier, we travel near the speed of light.

The implications for the theologian are interesting. For the novelist, they open up a whole new world. Literally. And that's what I hope to accomplish with my new venture into the world of fiction. I'd like to get people thinking about time, how we view it, and how God views it.

It may change the way we think about everything.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Peter the Roman

I'm one of those closet prophecy junkies. I imagine there are a lot more out there among my Christian brethren. So, like many of you I sat up and took notice when the Pope announced his retirement. While a Protestant like myself isn't effected by a change in management in the Catholic Church, the significance of a retiring Pope cannot be ignored. As I understand it, the last time this happened, in the 15th century, had more to do with a rift in the church and the existence of two men claiming the title of Pope than any real desire to spend more time on the golf course.

That alone is enough to make one think. For those of you who've toyed with prophecy, you also know of the prophecies naming this next Pope as the last. Now, I try not to get too caught up, because prophecy is a funny thing. It is written in such a manner that you don't understand it's significance until after the fact. Most of the prophecies about Jesus were somewhat useless in predicting when He would arrive on Earth, but in hindsight their accuracy was amazing.

Then there is the problem of the Peter the Roman prophecy not existing anywhere in the bible itself. It's a Catholic prophecy, and I don't believe it's recognized by the hierarchy of the church herself. The prophecy comes from two sources--Nostradamis and St. Malachy. Hardly basement conspiracy theorists.

What I take from prophecy and the times we live in is this: we are heading toward Earth's final chapter. But God's time is not our time. When I say time I mean it in the literal sense. For those who saw The Genesis Code movie, you have a fantastic understanding of time from God's perspective. The engineer in me rejoiced when I saw this movie (though the movie critic thought the plot a bit thin). I rejoiced because I've never seen the theory of relativity explained so well outside my college physics classes. They nailed it.

My point is this: we shouldn't stop working toward our goals, give up on our dreams, empty our 401k's because of this prophecy, or any. Remember, Moses took 80 years to come back and free the Israelites. The shepherds at Jesus birth probably wondered what happened to the baby in the manger. I wonder how many of them remembered thirty-three years later.

My new novel uses the concept of time as a focal point. I believe prophecy is being fulfilled and the little things that occur in our world are actually pivotal in the fulfillment of God's plan. I hope you'll join me on this little journey through our future. It will bring together the almost unnoticed events of the day and point them toward a final event that will close the book on all prophecy.

So I'll watch with some excitement as they announce the next Pope. If his name is Peter, I'll get somewhat more excited. If not, I'll write it off as another prophecy that was really no prophecy at all. What I am confident in is what's written in God's word. I can assure you that His time is coming.

Are you ready?

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Mountain Guides

I've been listening to Seth Godin's Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us on CD during my dr on CD during my morning drive in to work.

Seth has made a name for himself as an innovative thinker and marketer. I suspect they'll erect a bronze statue of him at the soon-to-come SEO hall of fame. While I don't intend on becoming a leader among internet marketing circles, there is value for a writer to listen or read guys like Seth. He ranks up there with Zig Ziglar and Stephen Covey as the great motivational writers of our time.

I'll save my marketing speech for another day. For now, I'd like to talk about this little habit I've gotten into of starting my day with positive input. I'm a lot of things--husband, father, Christian, engineer, writer, blogger--and each of those jobs requires a certain amount of motivation to get me going. It's easy to become discouraged by the negative impulses of the world, making our dreams and goals seem insurmountable, to the point where we become just like the other millions of Americans who drag themselves in and out of work five days a week, nothing to look forward to in their lives other than the weekend and two weeks of vacation.

I have been there. I shall not return.

Am I living the dream yet? No. But I would argue that living the dream and pursuing the dream are not too far apart on the "satisfaction scale." I like what Joyce Meyer says: "If you can't be happy where you're at, you're not going to be happy with where you want to go."

We have to find peace in our current situation, or the weight of our frustration will never allow us to move forward.

Which brings me back to Seth. Writers and speakers like Seth Godin stir us to think beyond the four walls we've built around our minds. But few of us have the discipline to get up each day and say, "I will overcome and achieve great things!" For one thing, my wife would make me sleep on the couch if I woke her up with that little speech at 5am.

Because few can be self-motivating, we rely on the great thinkers to give us a jolt of confidence. To me, it's better than a cup of coffee. I need my spirit stimulated more than my heart.

So I shut off the morning news (after I get the traffic report), and plug into a devotional, a uplifting blog on my Feedly reader, and a book on tape in the car, or at least the Christian FM station. I know the bad news is out there. If it's important, it will catch up to me eventually during the day. But I refuse to start my day without hope or encouragement.

While Seth and Zig are not writers by trade, they do wonders for writers like me who see a mountain of rejection in our future. The good news is that mountains are made for climbing. Guys like Seth Godin are always behind us shouting "Just one more step!"

Thanks, Seth. And Zig. And Stephen. I'm glad you're there. It makes those mountains look less like an obstacle and more like an adventure.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Praising the Snow

It's been an interesting weekend. I watched all week as the "snowstorm of the century" rolled across the midwest. Even more so was the timing that solidified by week's end. The storm was schedule to dump snow on our home in Michigan Thursday night and well into Friday morning.

I had a 6am Friday flight out of Detroit Metro.

The storm was then scheduled to hit New York about midday Friday, where it would join forces with an Atlantic storm to really stir things up.

My flight was to New York LaGuardia Airport.

The New York storm was expecting to dump over a foot of snow statewide throughout Friday night.

I would be driving my daughter home in our PT Cruiser, starting out Saturday morning.

Ever prayed a lot for better weather?

I did pray. A lot. And was somewhat disturbed when God allowed that snowstorm to not only hit, but in numbers greater than originally expected. Sydney and I stayed at the Quality Inn in Hyde Park Friday night, and we woke up to this Saturday morning.

Somewhere under that hill is a blue PT Cruiser. Meanwhile, my wife, back in Michigan is reading various reports on the internet about New York highways being shut down. Let me tell you something: even in this day of instant news, exaggerations abound. Oh, it was bad, no doubt about that, but once I realized the deed was done and I had a job to do, I felt at peace with it.

I borrowed a snow shovel from the hotel, dug out "Petey," and got us on the road. The freeways were slushy and down to one lane in spots, but passable. We spotted some interesting accidents in which the drivers all appeared unharmed, and had plenty to talk about.

God works that way, doesn't He? What I saw as a disaster of epic proportions turned into a daddy-daughter adventure, possibly one of the last I'll ever get with my now 19 year-old. It also turned into a great learning opportunity. She got to be a little scared of driving in bad weather. It's a fear that will serve her well. She was also in Hyde Park when Hurricane Sandy hit last year, so she's had the chance to witness the awesome power of God's nature that she probably never would have seen in our safe little corner of east Michigan.

The next eleven hours of our drive were mostly uneventful. We admired some beautiful snow-covered scenery and marveled at the efficiency of the New York and Pennsylvania Road Commissions. I also sent up a little thank you for salt.

I felt a little inconvenienced by the whole trip when my wife first announced I would be making it. I have work to do, writing to accomplish, my days are jam-packed. No time for this two day misadventure.

But, as a writer, I have a new dimension to add to my writing. I quickly forget that I will little to offer the world if all my time is spent hovered over a keyboard. Unless the world of my character's remains within the four walls of my den, I'd better get out and see what's out there. And yesterday I did.

So thank you, Lord, for giving me, once again, what I need instead of what I want. Thank you for the storm that I may rejoice in dry pavement and sunshine.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

How to Feed your Muse

You know, I like to read one of my favorite "how-to write" books as I'm working on a new novel. This time it's The Breakout Novelist: Craft and Strategies for Career Fiction Writers ">The Breakout Novelist by Donald Maass. Last night I'm laying in bed reading his section on subplot, how it should have an impact on the main plot, the characters should have several touch points in their relationships, and so forth.

That's when it hit me out of the Kindle what I needed for my current WIP. All of a sudden, a fairly flat idea for my story took on life. I became excited about the project again. While I had intended for my current WIP, Time as This, to be a supernatural thriller, new elements sprang out of the subplot ideas that were racing through my mind (you know, it's hard to sleep when you've got racing subplots in your head...give it a try, you'll see what I mean).

My supernatural thriller suddenly developed components of a romance, a mystery, maybe even a hint of chick lit. And a really great novel should contain elements of just about every genre imaginable. And that's what the subplot does for us.

I don't want to reveal my book just yet. I think this one's a winner. Of course I do, or I wouldn't wear out my keyboard on it. But it's fun, even at forty-six, to feel myself growing as a writer. No, I never got to be the twenty-two year old wonder boy who sold a million copies of his first novel and lived the life forever after, but that's okay. Man, life begins when you live it. And I'm livin' it.

So thank you (again), Mr. Maass and all those other wonderful folks who've written books to help me write mine. I wish I could just remember all those little bits of advice you give without having to re-read your work once a year or so, but I'm glad it's there when I need it.

How about you? Do you have a how-to write book that you return to each time you start a new project?

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

My bad-writing-behavior list

Today's blog post over at the Steve Laube Agency is from literary agent Karen Ball. It's called Writer as Editor: Tools to Use. Karen's writing a series on editing for the fiction writer. This one I found especially useful, if not a bit painful.

Karen's literary tool du jour is a personal list of bad writing habits. I'll let you read her article to get the details, but it got me thinking about my bad writing habits. What is it I do over and over again that I need to be on the lookout for? I currently do not have any critique partners (shopping...if you're interested and willing to buy the coffee, give me a shout), but when I did, they would highlight my repeat offenses, much to my aggravation. Men do not like to be told what's wrong with them, it serves a painful blow to the Rambo-esque image we have of ourselves.

But Karen's article got me to thinking about the list I need to have in front of me when I edit my work (not while I'm writing, gotta let the juices flow then). So here's my short list. Maybe you can identify with a few.

1. The use of "was" too often in a paragraph.

2. Characters who "laugh without humor" way too often.

3. Characters who press their hands flat on the table too often.

4. Characters who "press their lips together." (My characters press a lot).

5. Male characters who don't talk for entire chapters...yes, it's realistic, but boring.

6. Too many cold, blustery days (I need to get out of Michigan).

7. Characters who continuously glance out the window when they talk.

8. Comparing villains to living congressmen and MSNBC talk show hosts...okay, I never do that, but it's tempting.

I'm sure I could come up with more if I dug back through my old critiqued manuscripts. What about you? What bad writing habit is on your short list?

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

The Quick Start Plan for Characters

My biggest source of writer laziness is character development. I'm sorry, I just find it painfully boring to hash out all the details of my protagonist's life from birth to the point where he's falling from an airplane at the opening of my novel. I know I know, it's important to develop my characters. Otherwise, how will they know what to do when presented with obstacles?

So I use something I discovered in Weight Watchers--the quick start plan. For those of you in the know, WW gets you going in your first week by planning out your meals for absolute minimum calorie intake. It's bare bones. The goal, or course, is to get you to shed a few pounds while you're still hot with the program. By week 8, you're ready beat up your leader in the parking lot, take her money, and go out to buy as many boxes of Thin Mints as your car can carry. So the Quick Start plan is a way of at least getting you off the ground early.

I use the same method with a new novel. I just dive in. Bare bones. Start writing just to see if the plot I have in mind has teeth. My protagonist isn't much more than words on paper, a name and maybe a hair color. I've got him getting into the trouble that will blossom into a full-fledged plot, having a few discussions in his two-dimensional midwestern tone, and see where things go.

Somewhere around page 50...yes, page 50, I stop and look things over. Is the plot holding my interest? Is it feasible (when the supernatural is involved, this gets tricky)? Can I wrap this up in less than 800 pages?

If the answer is "yes" to all those questions, I grab a notebook and start giving my protagonist flesh. Then my antagonist and cast of support characters.

Yes, 50 pages is a lot of writing if I decide to scrap the idea, and I have scrapped a few. But a lunchtime novelist needs to get writing on paper. Not character development for two weeks before we begin. Maybe some of you can do that, but it would make me crazy to write character sheets for a month and then decide it won't work. That's a month of no writing. I suppose the blogs count, but fiction is different.

Occasionally, rarely for me, I'll have a character in mind before I begin. I envy those people who can build an entire life in their heads while mowing the lawn. I could barely describe my own life in one-hundred thousand words or less. Of course, that's probably a good clue as to why we shouldn't shoot for too much detail in our fictional characters. We're way too complex. And our character today is not the same character we were twenty years ago.

I understand now why series are so popular. You only have to develop your protag once, maybe adding a bit as you go along. Perhaps I'm not the only one who struggles with character development. If Tom Clancy had to keep Jack Ryan going for decades, why should I expect to do any better?

So how abut you? At what point to you build your characters?

Sunday, February 03, 2013

The Value Added Life

We often hear the phrase "Is it worth the effort?" It's one I've asked myself a thousand times during the years I've been writing and attempting to make at least a meager side income from it. In our world, any effort, especially when done alone and having no impact on another human, should provide some material benefit.

But perhaps I've been looking at this the wrong way. I recently volunteered to work in our church's Sunday school class. I don't get paid for it. And I actually sought it out. But I can point to a group of 2nd grade boys and know that I've made a difference in their lives. That I've served some higher purpose. It's not money, but it's something I can call profit. Because value has been added. For those of you not in the manufacturing world, Value Added is a commonly used term. It means that a step in a process adds another component or functionality to a part, value has been added. Other processes, like a quality inspection, are not Value Added, but essential nonetheless. It pays off greatly when customers are not returning their defective product in droves and dragging your company's name through the muck.

Each of us applies that same principle to our lives. The problem is that we're all accountants. Accountants hate non-value added processes. Any step that has cost associated to it but no direct value added to the product ranks right up there a trip to the dentist as far as the accountant is concerned.

The Quality Manager, on the other hand, would have some sort of inspection after every step in the process and his own personal kill switch to the assembly line. Nothing is too expensive to ensure a quality product, he'd say.

We can't be like the QM either. We'd be perfectionists who never completed anything out of fear it wasn't perfect.

The guy we need to be like is the CEO. He's the one that has to take all the information provided by the QM, the accountants, the engineers, etc. and come to some rational decision. One that will be profitable to the company. He usually makes every other department head angry when he makes his decision, because none of them is getting everything they want. There's no guarantee that the CEO is correct. No formula he can use to check his math. Most of his decision is determined by past experience and the good old-fashioned gut feeling.

Which brings me back to my writing. The accountant in my head is screaming that there are more profitable ways to spend my time. The quality guy drives me to keep it all under wraps until every line is perfect. The engineers don't understand why anyone would write fiction to begin with.

But I have to be the CEO of my life. My gut says that the writing will pay off. Maybe not monetarily, but through some unmeasurable benefit to my spirit. Even as I sit here and write this, I feel a peace that cannot be garnered through the television, fishing, reading, or any other "normal" activity. When we release our body and minds to pursue our passion, we are allowing the natural influences of our spirit to take control. Otherwise, we're at odds with our spirit. Disharmony of that sort creates chaos of spirit, mind, and body.

That, my friends, is not an efficiently running machine. Like the Sunday school class, it is benefitting my being, though to the outsider it may not be apparent. This is why I write. Publication will come because I'm confident that hard work and perseverance will always pay off.

But even if I never see a royalty check, my life has been greatly profited by the time I've spent at the keyboard.

Be the CEO, my friends. He's not always right, but the company cannot run without him.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Give a Little

My morning Spurgeon reading dealt with the issue of giving. This has always been a sore point for me. Not because I dislike my church asking for my monetary assistance, but because I cannot give the way I'd like to. When I fantasize about having all the money I could want, my fantasies tend to revolve around how much of that money I could give away. Wouldn't it be wonderful to pay off a relative's debt or mortgage? Or drop hundred dollar bills into the Salvation Army Kettle? Sponsor a dozen Compassion International children?

That's what giving is supposed to be. A Christian should never feel guilted into giving. We give because it brings us absolute joy. The same way it gives our Heavenly Father absolute joy to give to us, especially when He gives us the salvation we have not deserved and have no way of earning. To me, that's what it means to love as Jesus loved. To give abundantly. Of both our money and our time.

So why does it bother me to think or read about giving? Because I'm the typical American. I was brought up in the "stupid tax" generation. Stupid tax, for those of you who don't listen to Dave Ramsey, is the interest we pay on our cars, to Visa, Discover, AMEX, etc. We are the generation that is the polar opposite of the Greatest Generation. We don't save. We spend ourselves two paychecks in  advance and send 18% of our income to Chase Bank's prfofit margin.

It took me 40 years to figure out that the way I was living, which is the "acceptable" way of living for most of America, was so fundamentally wrong that it could even be labeled sinful. Who am I to expect something I haven't yet earned? It has caused me such great stress that I cannot stand the sight of my new car, my TV, or any of other toys I've financed over my lifetime.

Now, I've started to reverse the process, and will soon be out from under the bondage of Visa, but the thought of the years I've wasted, unable to give as I'd like, sends me to my knees to pray for forgiveness. It has effected me so that I started another blog called Stuff I Wish I Knew When I Was 20. It's a bit of a tongue-in-cheek look at all the mistakes I've made and written for my kids, who are now entering young adulthood. Of course, anyone can find a bit of un-wisdom there. The beauty of making mistakes is that you can warn those behind you. They rarely listen, but I can try.

It serves no purpose to say "If I could do it all over again." These are some of the most wasted words in our language. A better phrase is "It starts now." Forty-six is not old. Neither is sixty. No matter what we've done with our lives up to this moment, we can change direction. Oh, how I'd love to grab those who are in despair, their lives wrecked by drug and alcohol abuse, bad choices, and monstrous debt. No matter how deep your pit, God will show you the way out. But you (and I) have to accept the fact that we are responsible for the choices we've made. No one else. And we must make the first step toward the light.

Follow me folks. No, wait, follow Him. I'll walk alongside you.

Friday, February 01, 2013

The Next Page

My attitude toward writing has changed significantly over the last ten years or so. At first, it was all about the romance of it. The lonely writer locked away in his room, bent over a keyboard, his fifth cup of coffee that day sitting next to his stack of notes.

I know...heaven, right?

But things are different now. At 46 and coming to the realization that the majority of my working life is just about behind me, I see the writing as something that I simply must do. My defenition of success is not about publication, book contracts, or even a well-traveled blog. It's more about just getting to the next page.

It's similar to our walk in life, is it not? We come to appreciate each day as if it were our first. Even if we are rushed, we don't feel it in our spirit. We pause, we watch, we listen. A flock of geese, one of thousands we've seen flying overhead during our lifetime, captivates us. We find ourselves staring at our spouse as if  it were that first moment when she first caught our eye. The simple things reach out to us and pull us into the flow of living.

So it is with the writer. We find pleasure in completing the perfect sentence, even though we know it will not be perfect when we revisit it in the second draft. A new chapter sparks an excitement inside us. What will happen to our character? How can I really mess him up this time? It's a world we create, and we are mesmerized by our own ability to both create and be surprised by it.

I hope, I pray that you will never grow weary of rising in the morning. That you will look into your lover's eyes through your bifocals and hers, and still see beauty and a whole new person to explore. We're here for a short while. We may spend it writing or we may spend it fishing. I've had many a good day fishing where nary a fish has been caught. We do it for the love of the chase, the pursuit of dreams.

I know 46 isn't old by any stretch. I'm in good health (my doctor just told me I was boring), I take care of myself, so I expect I'll see another 40 years or so on this planet if The Lord remains patient with mankind that much longer. But I feel the wisdom of wonder settling in. I've learned to be happy no matter my circumstance. Do I worry? I suppose I do, a bit. But it's always laced with a fresh optimism.

So before you turn in for the night, take a moment and breath in the wonder of it all. God has given us a life, not as a boot camp for heaven, but to taste the fulness of His creation before we are forever separated from it. Good night, friends. God's blessings.