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Inside the Mind of Autism

or, THE FICTIONAL CHARACTER I WASN’T EVEN SURE I SHOULD ATTEMPT

Recently an interviewer asked me if I ever wrote characters of the opposite sex, and, if so, how hard it was to understand their thinking. I admit the question made me laugh. While it’s absolutely true that men and women think differently, I found it interesting that he was more concerned about how I put myself into the mind of a man rather than how it was to find myself, as an author, in the mind of a psychopath. Or an assassin. Or, God forbid, the parent of a kidnapped child.

In the Eden Thrillers, my co-author, B.K. Sherer, and I write each chapter in third person limited. That means each chapter finds us inside the head of a specific character. The reader sees things only through the eyes of that person, and knows no more than he or she does. For that chapter, you view life (and the other characters) as that person does.

I do believe that, to be successful, actors and some writers need an extraordinary ability to put themselves into the shoes of others. In my recent post on extreme empathy, I talked about the emotional cost of doing just that. Each of the Eden Thrillers has posed a challenge as far as understanding at least one world view that was very different than mine.

In PLAGUES OF EDEN, we wanted to try something very different again. We wanted to present a character who not only thought about things differently–but thought differently. Period.

I, personally, wanted to honor two young men of my acquaintance who were on the severe end of the autism spectrum, and I wanted to honor all the families I know who have a child anywhere on the spectrum. As a linear and verbal thinker, I was both curious and frightened to wonder how far I could go into understanding a mind that wasn’t constricted by these parameters.

the reason with photo reasaonijumpLike everyone else, I’d read books about autism, and I’d seen the tv movie about Temple Grandin. I’d hung with people all along the spectrum. But I didn’t have a way in to talking to them until I came upon THE REASON I JUMP by Naoki Higashida, a 13-year-old Japanese boy on the severe end of the spectrum who could not only communicate with his mother and teachers by merit of a chart with Japanese characters on it, but could put into words the reasons behind his actions and his thinking. It blew the lid off any preconceptions I had or anything I thought I understood.

The introduction to the English version is by David Mitchell, author of CLOUD ATLAS, who has a child on the spectrum. 

“Imagine a daily life in which your faculty of speech is taken away,” Mitchell begins. “After you lose your ability to communicate, the editor-in-residence who orders your thoughts walks out…a dam-burst of ideas, memories, impulses and thoughts is cascading over you, unstoppably. Your editor controlled this flow, diverting the vast majority away, and recommending just a tiny number for your conscious consideration…now your mind is a room where twenty radios, all tuned to different stations, are blaring out voices. The radios have no off switches or volume controls.”

He goes on to explain that you don’t have balance, and you’re not certain how your body fits together. You never have full control of it. Worse, all language is now a foreign language, and meltdowns and panic attacks are viewed as tantrums.

But this was nothing compared to the world that Naoki himself introduced. In his world, time does not exist as a linear concept. Thoughts are also not related, and don’t stick together in any recognizable order. A minute and a day can be of equal length. Many behaviors–head banging and hand fluttering, for example–are ways of out-playing more painful internal radios.

Words and concepts can float as dots that can be accessed in random order. Here’s an example he gives of the usefulness of words: Us kids with autism, we never use enough words, and it’s those missing words that can cause all the trouble. For example, three friends are talking about a classmate with autism:

“Hey, she just said ‘all of us.'”

“So, that must mean she want to join with us, yeah?”

“Dunno. Maybe she wants to know if we’re all doing it.”

In fact, the autistic girl’s ‘all of us’ came from something the teacher had said earlier in the day: “Tomorrow, all of us are going to the park.” What the girl wanted to find out was when they were going. She tried to do this by repeating the only words she could use: “all of us.” 

Naoki fills in much more about the way one would think without linear parameters, but two major points that brutally the reason kaiandsunnycaughtbythenest8-620x350stuck with me were that, for him, the worst thing about having autism is realizing the stress and pain he causes others, but not being able to do anything about it…and the fact that, from the point of view of floating in this vast ether, filled with dots rather than lines, he can clearly see the strictures and straight jackets that bind the minds of those of us who are “normal.”

Holy cow! Could I possibly unmoor myself, even for a little while, to dwell in the mind of a character who thought spatially rather than in a linear fashion?

Here were the reasons not to, and the things that would make doing so a particular challenge:

+ First, everyone who has a child on the spectrum has a very specific child, and none of them would be like the character we’d create. He’d be specific, also. But I fully understand how parents and families have ownership of the knowledge and love of their specific child. He would not be them. He might even be at cross purposes to what they understood autism to be. I would want to honor rather than upset readers.

+ In thrillers, characters are larger than life. It’s not a normal situation happening to normal people. Everything is heightened. This character would need to be heightened in some ways, also.

+ In thrillers, also, characters and plots have to interlock. Leal himself, as well as his challenges, would need to do this.

+ Even if I, as a writer, could exist in a corner of Leal’s (the character would be named Leal. He is French.) headspace, it would be a difficult dance, in his chapters, to use words to help the reader understand someone who is a nonverbal thinker.

The children I’d hung out with had interesting abilities to do things like sing or recite even though putting sentences together was difficult. Many of them had a specific DVD or television program they watched (what seemed to their families) ad nauseam. They could often quote–and seemingly understand–whole swatches of these shows. (As a matter of fact, while I was working with this, Ron Suskind’s book about reaching his son through Disney movies came out.) They also had things they were unusually good at, sometimes called “splinter skills.” 

The more I found out, and the more people I met, the more I really wanted to try to create a character who thought this way. It would never be perfect. It would never be completely realistic. I might upset people by my near miss. But I finally realized, even if I wasn’t able to pull it off the way I wanted to, I truly, truly wanted to start the conversation. I wanted people who’d never thought about spatial thinkers to realize there was a “real person” inside the person on the spectrum.

the dotsSo I jumped in. For a whole week, I spent much of my time in an alternate reality. It was big and black, and as huge as space. It was overwhelming and freeing and horrifying and frightening, and emotionally devastating and occasionally exhilarating to be in the mind of this character, this little boy. 

On Wednesday, I joined a group of my friends at a local pub, as I usually do, and as I sat down, I found myself still shaking. I had to explain to them “where” I’d been, and why it was such a vulnerable place.

So, this brings me to PLAGUES OF EDEN. Yes, it has a character on the autism spectrum. His father is on the extreme Plagues 7 Hailend of the non-compassionate spectrum. Things happen in the book that are indeed heightened reality. 

Does it work?

Will it open a conversation?

When you read the book, I’d love to hear what you think.

May I Tell You a Story?

ancientdead2Sam Golding, a young archaeologist heading a dig in Egypt, was perplexed. Strange things were being unearthed at the Tel El-Balamun site; objects from a different place and time period. His associate and friend Ibrahim invited him to go into town for the evening, but Sam demurred.

As he sat, puzzling over how to report what they were finding, a comet with a huge tail appeared in the Eastern sky. But instead of burning out, it grew larger. And closer. And hit the Earth a quarter mile from their dig.

Soon there was more large, fiery hail raining down on them. Ibrahim and another worker jumped into the old station wagon that served as their transport. It was hit.

The camp was destroyed.

Sam Golding had no way to know this was only the beginning.

This is how Plagues of Eden, our new thriller, opens.  (Well, in a very condensed version.)  After more than a year of work, the book comes out in two weeks, and I’ve been asked to blog about how writers feel during this time leading up to the publication of a new book.

Weird.

That’s my word. I’d love to know how other authors would describe it.

The conceiving, writing, and editing of the book are in the past.  The hoopla over the release is two weeks away. Print and blog interviews we’ve done and reviews we know are coming haven’t arrived yet. Radio interviews are scheduled, and B.K. and I love doing them, so that’s something to look forward to. So we’re stuck between past and future.

I love hanging out with my co-author, I love talking and discussing the books with readers. (See my recent blog post about the Writer/Reader Mind-Meld.)

The thing is, I’m a storyteller, a writer. A marketer, not so much. Many writers are in this camp, I know. But if I don’t help sell the book, readers won’t know it’s there, and they won’t buy it.

So, sometimes, I feel like I’m standing there, hat in hand, saying, “May I tell you a story? An exciting one? About a female Army chaplain who saves the world from a madman?”

Really, it seems that the point is to let readers know what the book’s about, and, if it’s up your alley, you take a chance and buy it.

So, here’s what the book’s about:

Another challenge with marketing is that I have the world’s coolest co-author. But writing thrillers with someone who’s active-duty military is kind of like writing with someone in Fight Club: the first rule of writing with active-duty military is you can’t talk about being active-duty military. That’s their main job. Writing is their stay-sane hobby. Hands off. And I truly understand. But part of the problem is, that means there’s LOTS of cool stuff I can’t tell you. But, buy the book. You’ll see. (Not a publicist’s favorite slogan.)

Having a book come out is a little bit like going to watch your kid in a school play or in a horse show. You’ve done all you can, and now there’s nothing more you can do but stand back and let them do their thing. The book is done. It’s printed. The story is told. The characters are crazy, or sexy, or interesting, or psychopathic. But they are what they are. They’re telling a story.

It’s about satellite-crashing and Red Tide and hitmen (and women) but it’s also about wine growing and relationships Vineyards Pugliaand Italy and China and France and Argentina and West Point. It’s about autism and Army chaplains and West Point cadets and people who are fascinated by chaos theory. It’s about what it means to be married to an secret agent.

Right now, I’m looking out the window at a doe and spotted fawns,  at a sky of Simpsons-blue, trees and lawns so green it’s as if we live in the shire. My book, the book that I have written and tended, the story I’ve loved, is about to be released to take its own path into the world.

photoweek24bJoin us on that path, if you’re so inclined. I’d love it if you did.

In other words, Psst…wanna buy a book?

magic bookYears ago, as a young writer, I sat in awe listening to a well-known book editor holding forth at a writer’s conference. “We always sort through the chaff,” he said. “Believe me, there is no Great American Novel sitting, rejected, in someone’s desk drawer.”

“Bullshit,” thought my polite, malleable self. “Bullshit.”

Several decades later, a successful author friend found herself at a party, chatting with a distinguished gentleman. When he found out she was a novelist, his eyes lit up. “How interesting. I’m a brain surgeon, but I’ve always wanted to try to write a novel!”

“What a coincidence!” she said, meeting the level of his enthusiasm. “I’m a novelist, but I’ve always wanted to try brain surgery!”

For me, the tension in the  landscape in between these two stories illustrates the promise and challenge of the ability of today’s authors to self-publish. This landscape is especially fraught for first-time self-published authors, but the choices they make ultimately affect all of us–which is why I’ve called you here today.

Ten years ago,  according to Bowker, 80,000  new book titles were published worldwide. Last year, 1.75 million new too-many-booksbooks appeared. That’s right, nearly 2 million newly published books were loosed on the world. The variance in quality, I’m supposing, was enormous. Not to mention, they were unleashed on a public that is becoming, on a whole, less interested in long-form writing.

Some of them, a very tiny percentage, made a good deal of dough.

meaning to writeBut, here you are. You’ve written a book. You’ve poured your heart and soul into it. The very act of writing it, of seeing it through to the end, cost you. Time, effort, and a great deal of emotion. I know. I hear you. I understand. To that alone, if nothing else, attention must be paid. Kudos must be delivered. I will tell you a secret: for those 2 million books that were published, 20 million people worldwide meant to finish a book. 200 million meant to start one. So you have accomplished something. You really have. We’ll take a moment of congratulations.

Now, let’s get down to brass tacks.

First, and most obviously, there ARE many wonderful, publishable books that have been rejected by many, many editors. Harry PotterGone with the WindA Wrinkle in Time, the list goes on–if the author had stopped at 11 submissions instead of 12, it would still be in that allegedly non-existent drawer. Some people never find the nerve to submit. Some can’t find the right agent, which is often as hard as finding the right editor. Many, many good books exist that, in the olden days of traditional publishing, would never have made it into print.

The corollary to this, of course, is that many books thought by their authors to be pure gold should never see the light of day. We authors, in fact, are often spectacularly terrible judges of our own material. To our further bad fortune, our parents and/or significant others are only slightly worse judges than we ourselves.That which we think to be gold is dross, and that we think to be unredeemable garbage is…well, usually it’s unredeemable garbage. But there is a stage in-between, where we cannot see clearly, and that we’re angsted over and turned inside out, can be truly magnificent…or is capable of becoming so.

So, let’s look, in ascending order, at the reasons you might want to jump into the 2015 class of 2 million, and parse out not only how true each of these reasons are, but what they mean to all of us who are writers.  If I lose you somewhere before number 3, you might want to consider keeping your day job.

6)  You want to be a famous, bestselling author.

This is the equivalent of wanting to become a movie star instead of an actor. It’s where we all start–as kids wishing we KNEW those guys! Wanting to be rich, and a brand, or at least beloved, with the products of our fertile imaginations a beacon to everyone.

Here is the truth: if this is what you want, you will be miserable, likely all your life. Look at the statistics. Even if you’re a very, very good writer, chances of becoming a famous, bestselling author are minimal. Lusting after it will turn you hollow. Becoming it (and finding out that fame, in itself, is hollow) will make you miserable, unless you’ve discovered the rest of the list. If this is what you want, stop right there. If you can’t get the fame thing out of your head, go into politics or make infomercials.

As we get older, many people move on to more grounded and attainable goals. Hopefully, if being an author is really your calling, you mature into a deeper understanding of what storytelling and writing actually means.

5) You want to be a Published Writer.

Honestly, to become a successful, productive author, I think you need this. Writing is hard. Negotiating the landscape that leads to publication is fraught with landmines. You’ve got to want to have written so much that you’re willing to write. This is where the drive comes to finish the manuscript, rework the manuscript, make it publication-worthy and get it published. Without this drive, it won’t happen.

Always before, the corollary to this was that you wanted to be a member of the exclusive club of not just writers, but published writers. This club was hard to join–someone else important–an editor somewhere–had to sponsor you for membership. Had to approve what you had written, deem it interesting and accomplished, and pay you for it. Oh, the joy! Oh, the ecstasy!

I belonged to the Published Writers Club for more than a decade–having published dozens of magazine articles, non-fiction books and biographies–before I was allowed into that most golden of circles: the published novelists. Holy smokes, what a day of rejoicing it was! Traditional publishers, back in the day before e-books, found it really hard to make money on authors who weren’t bestsellers. That meant, if they wanted to publish your novel, it didn’t just mean they thought you had a modicum of talent, it thought they saw potential to make money. You were not only talented, you were savvy! And salable! Give me the t-shirt, the tattoo, and let me into the Club!

From the beginning, I’ve always believed that every author is different, has different life experience and a different voice. There is room for many of us.

But, here’s the thing. As the story about the author and the brain surgeon demonstrates, everyone who talks thinks he or she can write. Writing is simply typing up your talking.

It’s not.

Now, if I’m in a group of people and someone asks what I do and I say, “I’m a novelist,” likely half the other people in the room will pipe up that they are novelists, also.

It doesn’t mean the same thing, and it never will again.

That’s why it’s so important, if you’re going to self-publish and let yourself into the club, that you please respect yourself, your writing, your fellow authors, and your audience.

4) You Are a Writer and you have to write

If you are, and you must, please respect this. Know that nothing trumps writing. Everything will try to–running errands, cleaning the kitchen, gardening, talking to your Uncle Roy. You must respect your muse. Tell her when you’re going to turn up, and then turn up. As my father told me on many occasions: the difference between successful writers and wanna-be writers is that successful writers write even when they don’t feel like it. When I was in college, I belonged to a small writers group called the BIC Clique. BIC stood for Butt In Chair. It’s where it all begins, and ends.

You only get to complain about writing if you are actually writing. The rest is whining and we don’t want to hear it.

3) it’s about the process

Here’t the thing: you don’t throw a bunch of words onto a page and call it a book. As Samuel Clemens said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.” Sam knew something about the value of words. He was a typesetter at a newspaper in his formative years. He had the tactile experience of choosing words carefully, of paying for each one.

When I worked as a magazine editor in the Olden Days, I’d do a first draft, typing up each page inside the lines denoting the margins. Each time we’d edit the story, I’d have to retype the whole thing–sometimes up to 30 pages. You learned to be precise with your language.

The advent of word processing made words seem cheap. They’re not. They’re easier to replace, but they’re still your building blocks.

As a young writer, I saw a film called THE CHILDREN OF THEATER STREET. It was about how Russians trained their ballet dancers, starting at a young age–and for hours and hours every day. I left in awe, thinking that those of us who wanted to write for a living owed it to ourselves, and to our readers, to treat writing like a craft, which it is.

Respect your craft. Increase your vocabulary. Read as many good books as you can get your hands on. Do a full first draft (Never just endlessly redo the first chapter!)  and then start making it better. Learn to edit. Learn to shape stories, create full characters. Develop an ear for dialogue. These are the brick and mortar of your craft. Learn them. Perfect them. You are never done. You can always be better.

2) It is about the work

For a true writer, it has to ultimately be  about  the  work. There is a story you must tell. There are characters who must live and breathe. And, when you’re done, it will become separate from you, as a child is from you but separate from you. It will mean different things to different people. But it is your job to make that work exactly what it should be.

Again, here’s the thing. Not every Work should be loosed upon the world. Some Works exist to make you a better, more skilled writer. When I was 22, one of my novels of literary fiction was almost published by a top editor at a top house. As much as it pains me to say it. looking back now, I know that work was not meant to be published.

In fact, I’m going to make a flying leap here and say that fully 1 million of those 1.75 million books published last year should have stayed in the author’s “learning curve” drawer. (That leaves a full 750,000 that I am giving the benefit of the doubt. As opposed to 80,000 that were published in 2004.)

Many writers who have had their first work traditionally published now know what it’s like to have the edges worn down by a process that is brutal, but often brings your work to a place it never would have otherwise reached. I have a friend who this year became traditionally published. It took her 2 years, 4 agents and 3 editors. The work was substantially better than it was when she started, but she herself was somewhat worse for the wear. But let me tell you, she felt she EARNED that book in print.

So what am I saying? That traditional publishing is still the way to go?

Not necessarily–although many authors now triumphantly trumpeting the glories of self-publishing were themselves traditionally published, found a following and learned the ropes before jumping into the DIY waters. This does give them a huge advantage.

What I am saying is, please, whether you self-publish or go the traditional route, RESPECT YOURSELF, RESPECT YOUR CRAFT, RESPECT YOUR WORK, RESPECT YOUR READER, AND RESPECT OTHER AUTHORS. 

Final thoughts:

What you gain by never having been traditionally published

+ In an ideal world, money. The biggest gripe indie authors have against traditional publishing is that you, as the author and creator of the work, get pennies on the dollar, known as your royalty. When you publish it yourself, Amazon (and other distributors) will tell you how much it’s taking, and the rest is yours. (This is of the e-book).

+ No gatekeeper. You can write a book today and have it for sale online next Tuesday. No one can tell you what is or isn’t selling or why your thinking outside the box will never go. Publish whatever you want.

+ No crazy editor will make your book into something you never intended it to be. No one will make you cut 30,000 words out of your 150,000 word story.

What you lose by never being traditionally published

+ Money. Did I mention that 1.75 million books were published last year? One thing that traditional publishing does for its authors is marketing and promotion. You can do it yourself (in fact, you’ll need to), but you can get pretty hoarse yelling over 1.75 million of your colleagues to get the readers’ attention.

+ The badge that says you’ve passed the gatekeeper. Someone–someone professional and not related to you–has said your book has merit.

+ A crazy editor. There is a point at which you have done your best and have gotten to the Mountains of Final Potential, and you need someone else with vision and a clear map over the mountains. I cannot tell you what I learned about writing from the really, really good editors with whom I’ve worked at various publishing houses. People who are great editors are born with a special talent. There are many good editors on Elance and other sites. Unless you have a writers group made up of other professional writers, hire one. I will say here (as I’ve done both), that when an editor you’ve hired says, “You need more Yani,” you think, “hmm.  Do I agree?” while, when Jen Enderlin at St. Martin’s says, “You need more Yani,” my mind asks, “Okay, what’s the best way to get more Yani in there?”

+ Good copy editing and good proofreading, and an understanding of why those things are so very important. Again, if you’re self-publishing, Elance. Please.

+ Design. Your cover is crucial. The interiors are crucial. If you have to choose, pay for the cover design. There are many good designers online. Here is the thing: professional cover designers will not only understand a good look for a book, they can glance at a cover and tell you the five year window during which the book was produced. There are trends in book covers that you may only be noticing subconsciously. But they’re important in someone’s decision to buy.

+ Marketing and publicity.  Unless you’re James Patterson, who has his own full-time marketing team, your publisher is not going to give you the resources needed to promote your book. They will likely give you a 22-year-old for two weeks, and incidentally, the wrong two weeks. You still need to be your own chief marketer. But you at least got to see what they were doing so you could do it yourself later. This is the one you’ll be most tempted to cry over. Don’t bother.

+ Shelf space in brick-and-mortars. Unless you’ve got distribution and a sales team, not going to happen. Same with libraries. Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.

So: ARM YOURSELF WITH AS MUCH INFORMATION AS HUMANLY POSSIBLE. On all the points above. Professional writers tend to be a friendly lot, if somewhat reclusive. We will often answer questions when asked. And many of us teach classes and workshops.

(Perhaps you’ve noticed that I’m not making any sweeping statements about either Amazon or Hachette. Fact is, Amazon and traditional publishers are in business to make money. Neither of them have distribution models that are based on the needs of authors. I have no dog in this fight. Both sides behave abominably.)

1) Finally, respect your audience and the world of books

Please. Gain as much information as you can. Do not be precious about your writing. Do the work. Get the support you need. Decide who your audience is, your tribe, and somehow talk to the elders of that tribe. Do whatever it takes to get yourself into that respect-worthy top .75 millio

There are many talented and serious (and successful) authors who are both traditionally and self-published. What we’d really like to ask is that, if you’re thinking of becoming published, that you join the ranks of those who take their talent and their craft seriously. To my mind, the distinction has never been between traditionally published and self-published authors, but between serious and non-serious authors. 

I hope that will become your distinction, too.

9 blue balloonNot long ago, a writer friend of mine posted an article about the 15 habits of highly organized people. I will begin by saying that she is a very nice person and a hell of a writer. But when I noticed most of the comments were from her FB friends whining about why they weren’t organized but always meant to be or apologizing for being a sub-category of human because they hadn’t yet decluttered their desks, something in me rose up in protest.

I went ahead and read that list, that included things such as:

+ make a single to-do list, color code things in order of importance,

+ keep all flat surfaces (including your desk) empty and free of clutter and (the final one)

+ At the end of your highly organized day, spend 20 minutes planning for tomorrow.

In the olden days, this Type A personality ideal would have made me feel unworthy also. Now I read it and think, “I hope they are happy living in this self-imposed obsessive-compulsive universe.”

When we moved into our current house, lo, these 15 years ago, I soon discovered that most of the other homes on our street were kept showplace-ready by their lovely mistresses (and masters, too, I’m sure). For a while, I was hesitant to let the offspring of these super-organized parents into our well-lived-in abode. For the record, at the height of occupancy, we had 2 children, 3 dogs, 4 cats, multiple hamsters and 66 mice (a mistake we learned from). The horse was at a barn. We worked hard and played hard.  There is no need to call the Board of Health, but Better Homes & Gardens wasn’t likely to nominate us for anything, either.

Soon I realized that the neighborhood children had no trouble racing through our house or playing with our menagerie. I even began to feel I fulfilled a place in the food chain of the neighborhood: I was giving the local children a glimpse into an alternative lifestyle. The life of the B+ personality, in which people not only existed, but thrived.

When I had a FB-comment discussion with the author who had posted the 15 commandments of the uber-0rganized, she admitted that she couldn’t write unless her desk was clear and neat as a pin. I, on the other hand, feel the opposite. If my desk is reflective of my mind and internal life, why would I want it to be empty and sterile? And who decided all these interesting, story-filled objects on my desk or other flat surfaces, were “clutter,” anyway? That’s a judgement, right there. Clutter is bad. Inspirational whimsy is wonderful.

Note again that I’m talking about Type B+ personalities, not Type D hoarders with 27 cats or kitchens under layers of grease too dangerous to cook around.

Instead, I speak of those of us who are happy and proud to find our values reflected in being a solid B + when it comes to personality types. So, what are our secrets for happiness? (Or, under what kind of duress will you live if you’re around us?) Here is a rare glimpse into our universe. And you’re welcome to visit–even if we’re not expecting you. Perhaps especially if we’re not expecting you!

10 HABITS OF SORT-OF ORGANIZED PEOPLE

1) CLOSE ENOUGH  We have this way of having lives that are wonderful and surprising and overstuffed. This usually leads to (multiple) lists of things that need to get done; not all of it will happen. We’re fine with that. We trust we’ll remember the most important things, but sometimes we don’t. That’s okay. We’re having a wonderful time, anyway. And all the stuff that does get done? So much of it gets done because we live by law of Close Enough. (We’re having a houseful of company for the weekend! Is the house clean? Close enough! We were going to teach our toddlers to eat only organic food, speak Mandarin and enough French to be able to say, “Maman, regarde, il est Gwyneth!” Did it happen? Close enough!)

2) LOOK! A FOX! Another name for this habit is “distractions are often the point.” What we think is going to happen during the day is only a loose structure on which to hang what actually happens (so why bother spending 20 minutes the night before prepping it and 20 minutes this morning color-coding it?). Perhaps you have your next two weeks of work scheduled out, but the boss wants to send you to Shanghai. Are you kidding? Chinese food for everyone! You  need to run errands, but it’s a great day for a picnic! Duh. Or you’re planning to have dinner with a friend, but the director and star of BOYHOOD will turn up at the 6 p.m. screening for a Q & A. Hey, friend! Meet me for the movie! Your kid lost his ride to work, so you’ve got to give up your library time to take him. Guess what! 20 unexpected minutes with your kid! Woo-hoo!

3) THE HOUSE EXISTS TO SUPPORT LIVING Our houses, and offices are not immaculate showplaces that allow one to inhabit them if nothing is moved out of place. They’re wonderful spaces in which to express our creativity, reflect our values, and which support the kind of crazy, wonderful, unexpected lives we and our families lead. To that end, we often display very cool  items and photos to remind us of times and people. These items are not clutter. They are ebeneezers. They are happiness cues. They are whimsy.

9 happy+cooks4) COME HELP COOK! When I was a kid, my mother loved to entertain. Well, perhaps “love” is too strong a word. She got a certain satisfaction from a spotless home and a flawless presentation of food. If she was having a dinner on the weekend, I was compelled to set the table with the good china at least 2 to 3 days in advance. By the time folks arrived, everything was perfect, and she was in the kitchen with everything on a timer. Even then I thought it strange that she didn’t interact with the company until she sat at table, the gracious hostess. Did she enjoy the company? Or did she enjoy that the company was truly impressed? Now yes, I realize this is the pendulum swinging, but even at the time, I thought that if I had people over for great fun and great food, the point would be to have it together. So if you come to my house for an evening, and you come into the kitchen and say, “Can I help?” know that the answer is very likely to be, “Sure! And what are you drinking?”

5) THE DESK EXISTS TO SUPPORT CREATIVITY This is a corollary to the House thing in number 3. It is hard for me to write and find inspiration when my desk is empty. I need photos and illustrations of what I’m writing about, photos of actors who could possibly play the parts of the characters, a cork board with covered with airline tickets (woo-hoo!) drawings by my kids, and a tape dispenser shaped like a martini glass. These things make me happy. They get my juices flowing. they are not “clutter.” As a caveat, this habit, along with # 1, speak to why we B+s also need things like calendar apps and accountants. Organizations like the school system and the IRS often don’t do well interfacing with the worlds of creativity and “close enough.”

6) A SENSE OF HUMOR IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN ATTAINMENT OF PERFECTION We B+s consider a day a success not if we had one list and checked off the most importantly-colored items, but if we found two or three of our lists and got stuff done. We were creative. We made progress. We had interesting conversations. Let me point out, we’re not anti-progress. We’re all for finishing things and attaining goals and meeting deadlines. We just kind of enjoy careening into them, with friends on the phone, and the ability to say, “Well, hell, look at that! It’s done!” (Or, coming in for a landing at the last minute, screaming–well, you know what we’re screaming.) In other words, our worlds are the opposite of keeping up appearances. We think it’s swell, as we sit in PTA meetings, that our lives are cooler and more fun than they might look.

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7) EXPERIENCES ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN THINGS I knew that my family had caught this bug, also, when for her fourth birthday, my daughter desperately wanted a hot air balloon ride. We’re not big at collecting things or showing things off or having exactly the right drapes or expensive jewelry. We love that we’ve parasailed in Hawaii and been dropped 220 feet in the Slingshot at 6 Flags, traveled overseas and attended lots of theater, tasted fantastic gourmet things–we love experiencing what the world has to offer, which is a lot! We also value experiencing places where people don’t have everything they need, and letting those experiences help us shape a better world.

8) PEOPLE ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN EXPERIENCES In other words, life, on its most basic level is not about ME, or how clean my house is or the neat places I’ve visited. It’s about the tribe–the others with whom we’re sharing this big blue marble of a home at this time in history. If a friend can’t see the movie, see the friend. Being personally wealthy is not as important as sustaining the planet and her people. Success in life is not what I’ve done, what I have, how I’m perceived. It’s being a joyful, contributing member of God’s family.

9) THE JOURNEY IS THE GOAL There is nothing but this moment, these opportunities, these people. We have a calling and a direction, yet  happiness doesn’t come from controlling and arranging it, but loving and experiencing all of it. That’s all.

(Wait. Did I say 10? Hmm. See # 1.)

Here is a video that illustrates what I’m saying.

The house is  comfortable. The kid is brilliant. The mom, to my mind, has her priorities straight.

Several years ago, after a relaxing few days out of town, we dropped a friend off at his place of employment. “Back to the old grind,” he sighed. Which I thought was only slightly weird, as he was currently performing in a Broadway play that had gotten rave reviews.

1 standing oNow I realize that anything becomes “same old, same old” when you do it day in and day out. But still, as we pulled away from the curb, I couldn’t help but wistfully wonder what it would be like for the rest of us, if, after putting in a good day’s work, everyone who would eventually benefit from our labor was right there in front of us, leaping to their feet, applauding and cheering. Wouldn’t that be great?

I’ve been remembering that drop-off lately, as B.K. and I are in final boarding stages for the release of PLAGUES OF EDEN.

It used to be that storytellers plied their craft in person, able to discern the involvement of the tell-ees in the flickering firelight. Now, with the advent of the printed word (and the spoken word, captured digitally), the storyteller and the reader have an enforced degree of separation. I write alone at my desk, and you read–where? In your room, on a train, in a Starbucks, in the bath? I don’t know! You’re on your own.

doctor mind meldThe inimitable Lee Child, who is a captivating speaker as well as author, asserts that when readers pick up a novel, they enter into an intense “mind-meld” with the author.

As a reader myself, I believe that to be true. A novel worth its salt creates an entire world to which the reader is given a personal invitation. You’re then invited into the  mind-space of a group of characters, and you vicariously accompany them upon whatever journey awaits you all.

And that’s something wonderful, personal, and meaningful.

Do you remember a time you had an adventure? Went on a trip to a faraway land, or even your cousin’s house–or possibly a restaurant you’d never tried before? And something magical happened–whatever it is that’s necessary for a fun occasion to become an indelible memory. To this day, you remember who else was there with you, some of the best lines that were said, the laughter (or the danger or the horror). Your own intense feelings. From then on, whether the experience was harrowing or wonderful, it was unforgettable. And you now have a bond with those folks that were there. Until the end of time, one of you can say a certain word or phrase, and the rest of you will ricochet back in time.

That is what happens when you read a really good book. You and those characters go on a heightened journey together.

So, here’s the weird thing for me, as an author. The characters in my books–I KNOW them. While a reader might spend a dozen hours with them, I’ve spent months. They’re my intimate friends. And, whether I want it to or not, what happens to them impacts me. B.K. still hasn’t gotten over what happens at the end of BEYOND EDEN.  Whereas, when I finished one day of writing in the mind of a character in PLAGUES named Leal, I went to a weekly pub meeting and had to tell my friends, “I’m sorry, I just wrote some scenes that were highly intense for me, and I’m still a bit shaken.”

And so, when a reader enters into this mind-meld, for a while, we do share that same reality. There is a bond between us: we have friends in common.

But, here’s the thing. I really wish we could be in the mind-meld together. If not at the same time, that at least, as the writer, I could know it was happening. I don’t know how to bridge that gap, and I wish that I did.

Any suggestions?

So sometimes, sitting alone at my desk, having adventures with these fictional close friends, I do wish that I knew the flesh-and-blood “fellowship of the book” who would eventually be joining with me.

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Truthfully, I don’t need that standing ovation. I don’t even NEED us to be in the same room at the same time with my fellow journeyers, or obviously, I’d have stopped writing by now.

But it is awfully nice to know that the readers are out there, and to hear from some with whom I now have friends in common, and who have joined me on the journey.

So, thanks! And, when you finish your day’s work, take a minute and picturing me applauding. Well done.

Do-more-about-climate-change-Another-standing-ovation

I’m sick of Dystopia. I don’t want to live on an Animal Farm in 1984. I don’t want to run with Logan or snack on Soylent Green. I don’t even want to be Divergent while Catching Fire.divergent

While I understand the the books mentioned above are very well written, their worlds fully realized, I am afraid that, instead of being enabling calls to fight for a just world, they tend to make readers feel helpless, as if the world’s problems are unsolvable, and much bigger than all of us. They impart the fatalistic feeling that we as a world, or a society are  heading for a brick wall at lightning speed–at such lightning speed, that there’s nothing to be done.

In fact, one study done two years ago found that many adult women felt that global warming, or terrorists, or whatever, were so likely to end the world as we know it that they admitted to thinking, “Well, at least I got to…” have children, afford food, breathe clean air,  live in a nice house, participate in democracy…even if their children and grandchildren wouldn’t have the same opportunities.

Seriously.

I’m not saying that things aren’t going to Hell in a handbasket. They absolutely are. I’m also not saying that we shouldn’t read or write books about villainous people doing terrible things. We absolutely should.

hunger gamesWhat I am saying is that it’s time to become less obsessed with societies rooted in despair and start imagining ourselves citizens of KickAssTopia because we’ve got to face our problems head on and feel empowered to get out there and fix things before society devolves to the place that someone comes for our little sisters to make them fight to the death. Seriously.

42__unicorns_and_rainbows_by_royaba-d58uqslThis doesn’t mean riding unicorns to utopia (or eutopia) while pretending everything is sweetness and light. (Although apparently some people have other ideas. )

To my mind, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS is an inspiring book. It looks at hard situations head-on, but promotes the idea that the characters can have some control of their worlds and affect change. The same goes for books such as THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER.perksfault in our stars

A few years ago, sociologist Jon Haidt did a study of the emotion he calls “elevation.” What he found was that people who witness or even hear stories about people doing good deeds and putting themselves out there in altruistic ways are more likely to do such things themselves.

It’s true of real life and–thank goodness!–it’s also true of fiction. If you want to be an effective agent of change in the world, think about what you watch and what you read. (And what you write. I write what I write, often, as a pep talk to myself.)

Do you agree or disagree? Have any books driven you to take positive action? I’d love to hear.

For many years, novelists fought the marketing hurdle that nonfiction gives you something (information), while fiction takes something away(your time). Many of us always knew that to be untrue, but it’s hard to explain to someone who wants “just the facts, ma’am.”

Now we’re finding out that isn’t  the case at all. Researchers have found that reading fiction changes your brain’s ability to function and make important interconnections for days after you finish reading a novel.

(http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/01/study-reading-a-novel-changes-your-brain/282952/)

But I believe fiction does something else important, albeit less quantifiable.

Fiction changes us. It changes how we think, how we view the world, what we expect, what we believe we’re capable of.

Let me note that I’m specifically not talking about the purposeful troublemakers, God bless them, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe (“the little lady who started this big war”), George Orwell or other political novelists. How they ignite arguments and change the world, for better or worse, is front and center.  Instead, I’m considering the instances of just darn good storytelling, of people spinning a yarn that involves and entertains the reader, and seems to be happening to a hero or heroine with whom the reader identifies: a normal person, just like us.

MStewart-1-Obit-master180Much of this thinking on my part has been triggered by the recent death of Mary Stewart. It’s hard to believe, at this point in time, how very different things were in the world of genre fiction in the mid 20th century. How women–even the smart ones–were “stand-by” characters who pushed the male hero forward and occasionally fed him important information. That’s if they were smart. Much more often, they distracted him with their “feminine wiles.” In either case, they didn’t exactly move the action. Or they were fully fleshed out characters, like Rebecca in the novel of the same name–but they were trapped in a world defined by men (and really mean women). Then came Mary. She purposefully wrote the kind of mystery/suspense novels she wanted to read: where the women were the active protagonists, marching into the fray.

Her heroines weren’t superheroes. In her obituary in The Guardian, she’s quoted as saying she would “take conventionally bizarre situations (the car chase, the closed-room murder, the wicked uncle tale) and send real people into them, normal, everyday people with normal, everyday reactions to violence and fear; people not ‘heroic’ in the conventional sense, but averagely intelligent men and women who could be shocked or outraged into defending, if necessary, with great physical bravery, what they held to be right.”

Stewart called her books “light, fast-moving stories, which are meant to give pleasure, and where the bees in the writer’s bonnet are kept buzzing very softly indeed,” saying she was “first and foremost a teller of tales, but I am also a serious-minded woman who accepts the responsibilities of her job, and that job, if I am to be true to what is in me, is to say with every voice at my command: ‘We must love and imitate the beautiful and the good.'”  You GO, woman!

Now, I don’t want to slight men here; I love men; they face their own challenges that are not easy. But I have to say, Mary-Stewart_2912427bgrowing up in the 20th century, girls were taught, nearly universally, that even if we were capable of doing something and the opportunity had presented itself, we had to first get permission. Being proactive without first getting someone to sign off on our decisions  is still a fearful thing to many of us. Mary’s heroines were scared, but they did it anyway. And if they could, darn it, so could I.

Mary Stewart’s book that rocked my world was The Crystal Cave, the story of the young Merlin–but told with a modern sensibility, not as a medieval bard’s tale. “The day my Uncle Camlach came home, I was just six years old.”  OMG. The fantastical and the every day married in such a way that made the everyday holy and magic, and made the stakes of being yourself so costly and dangerous but profoundly worth it. Life could be like this. Writing could be like this. This was the path that called me, and once I’d taken the first step onto it, there was no turning back.  Thank you, Mary. Thank you very much.

Many of the writers I most admire follow Mary’s advice that “the bees in the writer’s bonnet are kept buzzing very softly indeed.” To me, this is a very important part of affecting change in a person, and eventually, in society. By picking up a novel, you get to walk a mile (or ten) in that person’s shoes. Try on a new level of courage, of action, of thought, of living in a larger world, just to see how it fits. Perhaps before you would be comfortable with those changes in your skin, you will be comfortable with them, by proxy, in the character’s skin. And that’s how the possibility takes root.

Many, many writers have taken us forward down Mary’s path of “the beautiful and the good.” Here are some of my all-time favorites. Let me just note that the number one qualification for being on this  list (in my mind is a very long version) is that you are one hell of a writer, who takes the craft very very seriously!

astrid-lindgrenAstrid Lindgren. Seriously, was their ever a girl who needed less permission than Pippi Longstocking? She was stalwart, courageous, a fast friend and a defender against pirates. She was also hysterically funny. Apparently, she caused all sorts of trouble with those who are grand proponents of doing as your told and following the rules. Astrid wrote many other books, and none of her heroines  asked permission.

Fannie-FlaggFanny FlaggFried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe is a tale of women with lots of troubles in their lives and lots of folks telling them what they can and can’t do. You get so involved, it’s not even a question about who it’s proper to love. Love is always proper. Heart, hilarity, and really good barbecue.

Anita DiamantAnita Diamant. In The Red Tent, Ms. Diamant tells the familiar biblical story of Jacob and his children–or, more specifically, Leah, Rachel, Zilpah and Bilhah and their children–through the eyes of daughter Dinah. Turns out men and women tell the same history very differently, and it’s about time the other voice was imagined and heard.

 

Montgomery_LL.M. Montgomery. Lucy  Maud Montgomery lived a life uncomfortably like those of her heroines Anne Of Green Gables and Emily of New Moon. After her mother’s death, she was given by her father to be raised in a loveless home by stern aunts. Instead of bemoaning her lot, she lived in her imagination, and wrote stories about young girls who, through force of their personalities and knowledge that they belong to “the tribe that knows Joseph,” are able to transform the world around them. Her books  have transformed the lives of many many girls the world over since.

writer-JK-Rowling--001J.K. Rowling. We all know the story; the young, single mother on welfare who toiled over a novel it seemed no one would publish. Instead, Harry, Hermione and Ron showed kids and adults the world over how to live in a magical world where good and evil clearly exist, and children are able to affect their own destinies, as well as that of the world around them. Well done, Jo Rowling. Well done.

The Crystal Cave pippi longstocking red tent Friedgreenbook harry potter emilyofnewmoon__span

Okay, I realize that what constitutes sexiness is a very personal thing. Could be you’re a curvy size 0 with a name like Tapathis Nau with no fear of disease or desire for commitment and Bond, James Bond, is right up your alley. God bless, you’ll get no tussle from this quarter. All yours.

For some of us, what makes a character attractive is a more robust mix of attributes. I’ll admit my top, in real life, is nobility of spirit. Courage, commitment and caring are right up there. Talent seasons everything. But something’s different on the page. In literary life, I like my heroes unattainable. Someone who is so heroic, he has too much on his mind to fool around with this silly little thing called love.

EXCEPT when he falls, for one singular woman, he falls HARD.  And we all know, were we ourselves fictional and he’d only met us first, it could have been…one for the ages.

So.  Here’s my short list.  These are presented with the hope you will share your list with me.

 

Ari Ben CanaanAri Ben Canaan.  This is where it all began for me. Politics aside, in Leon Uris’ book Exodus, there was a character so selfless, so courageous and so heroic, I was instantly in love. Ari exuded nobility of spirit, and I knew immediately that was not only the kind of fellow I wanted to marry, it was the kind of fellow I wanted to become. Even Paul Newman, bless his heart, did not capture the full essence of the Ari who was on the page.

 

Merlin CC coverAmbrosius. Yes, the Crystal Cave is about Arthur, and Merlin and (very notably) Uther Pendragon. But Mary Stewart presents Ambrosius is the prince that rises above all of them to repel invaders at the wall, live in a just way, temper his hotblooded brother Uther, and basically sew the seeds of the beginning of Great Britain and what would become the Round Table. He was also celibate…well, except for this one princess with whom he was still (secretly) in love, and the child they’d had together…

Gregory Pech as Atticus FinchAtticus Finch.  Need I say more?  To Kill A Mockingbird is narratred  by his young daughter, so the sexy isn’t front and center. But Atticus had a wife, obviously loved her, and could sure use help with some world-changing. If you ask me. Moral integrity and quiet courage are in as short supply today as they ever were. 

 

Jamie Fraser. Oh, Diana Gabaldon. In Outlander, she created that most illusive of characters, the courageous, OUT-102_20131106_EM-1710.jpgheroic, sexy man who finds his soulmate and stays true to her while continuing to have really really sexy conjugal relations. Yes, it involves time travel and the Scottish highlands. And yes, it is finally being made into a series by Starz. Whether Jamie will remain the well-spanked, well-built Scotsman who swaggered onto the pages of Outlander remains to be seen.

Mrs. MikeSergeant Mike Flannigan. Of the Canadian Mounted Police.  When 16-year-old Bostonian meets her Canadian sergeant with “eyes so blue you could swim in them” in 1907, a love story with a man and a wilderness was born. Mrs. Mike is not only a love story, but a story of a marriage and how love deepens and grows through hardship and wonder.

 

Yani. So it should come as no surprise to readers of the Eden Thrillers that our heroine Jaime Richards has a thing for men who have nobility of spirit. As she says in the upcoming Plagues of Eden, “For many years of her life, Jaime had assumed she would never get married. Not that she had anything against marriage, but she tended to fall for knight-errant types who were too busy slaying dragons to consider applying for a mortgage.” In other words, Jaime is me (and B.K.) in this regard. Bar set pretty darn high.Yani

So in Chasing Eden, she meets this mysterious man who kidnaps her in the ruins of Ur, enlists her help to recover a lost sword, and runs her through the ruins of Babylon, where she’s kidnapped once again. But before the story is over, he has also cared for and saved a terrified young boy who is bleeding to death, and an elderly man who is being pursued by the baddest of the bad. Now that I think about it, Yani is kind of Ari meets Jamie meets Atticus and Ambrosius. Mostly the first two. But did we succeed in creating a sexy thinking woman’s hero?

Let us know. And let me know who YOUR nominees are for sexiest hero!

Uris_Exodus-lowresMockingbird coverThe Crystal CaveOutlanderChasingEden_audio-cover

 

 

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Real life. Technically, the blog about the literary heroes is over and you’re free to go. But this all got me started about the fact that, sure enough, in real life, I really have always been a sucker for nobility of spirit. In fact, I remember reading the book A Man Called Peter as a girl, and bursting into tears at the end. Not because the courageous Scottish preacher died, but, as I cried to my father, “What if I can’t find a man like Peter Marshall or you to marry? Statistically, there just aren’t enough to go around!”

So, the fact is that I also appreciate real life heroes and nobility of spirit. It’s why I spent two years talking to Holocaust survivors and family and friends of Raoul Wallenberg, the young Swedish architect who saved over 100,000 Jews from Hungary at the end of World War II.

man called peter

 

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It’s probably why I’m married to Bob Scott, who is currently planning CREATING COMMON GOOD. A Practical Conference on Economic Equality, a conference with the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Cornell West, Barbara Ehrenreich, Rachel Held Evans and others, next January.  And why I’m so proud to visit my dad, on whom Peter Marshall had nothing, and who goes to dinner at his retirement community as “God’s secret agent,” sitting with different folks each night, just seeing where he can listen and bring healing. It’s probably why my co-authors are Chaplain (COL) B.K. Sherer, who cares about each and every soldier and cadet under her care.  Oh, and Axel Avian who truly believes that every kid (and grown up) can change the world.  How that has happened, I really can’t tell you, except that I am blessed indeed.

 

 

Perhaps some weeks ago you read my lament, “Sometimes, Being a Writer Sucks.” Honestly, I believe admissions  like that are part of the creative process that others rarely glimpsed before the advent of the blog.young adult reading magic book in library

Lest you think I’m here to repent, I stand by each and every bitchy statement made therein.

HOWEVER. This is the paragraph I’m here to address:

“The first problem is, I’m never as good as I want to be. There’s a paradigm in my head of the story I’m telling, the book I’m writing, and as hard as I try, I seldom achieve it. I am also writing this post at the particular moment in time because we’re inching towards the finish line on the next Eden thriller, and it’s 85 percent there. Which is a depressing number. The lifeblood and brilliance and paths of engagement with the reader are in that last 15 percent, and, as of now, I don’t know how to get there.”

So, when you last saw me, we were stuck at 85%. Yet PLAGUES OF EDEN is now signed off on, copy edited and , last I heard, off to the interior designer. I even did a little dance.

What was the 15% solution?

The simple answer: You. The Reader.

I’m sure every novelist has her or his own secret formula for working with readers and editors to bring their stories to fruition. Let me pull back the veil on my own.

What I’m talking about today is PLAGUES of EDEN, the next in the Eden Thriller series. That’s the one I was bemoaning in my previous post. And, to my mind, it wasn’t exactly surprising.

Eden_Thrillers_Compendium_Covers

The Eden Thrillers (Chasing Eden, Beyond Eden and Treasure of Eden) are by far the most complex books I write. They’re done with co-author B.K. Sherer (about whom you’ve likely read in this very blog, see  “Return to Eden” Jan. ’13). Each book is told from the point of view of multiple characters, has settings in multiple countries, and requires a working knowledge of several world-wide happenings and issues. Putting all of this together is HUGE. And the first draft, always, is a huge glorious MESS.

So how does it go from HGM to Sharon’s Little Dance? (SLD)?

Readers. New pairs of eyes. I include editors in this because editors are really readers with special skills. But ALL our early readers contribute to the final (hopefully) sleek final draft. The different readers come in at different stages. At this point, we have a fairly good idea of who to go to for which stage of reading. Each stage requires different skills.Author at work

CO-AUTHORS.  B.K. and I tag team each other as we go along. We hammer out the plot and characters together. In PLAGUES, there are several returning characters as well as a whole sheath of new ones. The book also takes place in multiple time zones at once; when we had half the first-pass scenes written, I took one insanity-inducing week off to become one with the website 24TimeZones.com and put them all in order-of-actually-occurring, although the action in China would likely happen in a different day than events in Argentina taking place simultaneously. So many story arcs in so many time zones: it wasn’t just getting them put into order, but having the action rise in such a way that they FIT together. It didn’t drive me to drink, but I probably ate a couple of macaroons I shouldn’t have.

At this particular moment in time, B.K. has a few things on her plate with her other job. Often during her deployments, I longed for the day she’d stay Stateside while we wrote. Well, now she’s not only in the same country, she’s in the same TIME ZONE! She’s at USMA at West Point, and I can drive there in 45 minutes! All well and good, but as senior chaplain, she takes her job seriously and she’s very good at it, which often means she works seven day weeks. In other words, she’s busier than she was even on deployments to Iraq. Time working on PLAGUES was slotted and intense for both of us–though we loved it, or we wouldn’t have done it. It also usually involved Mexican food. Writing fiction is not for sissies.

Once a first full draft is done and B.K. and I have discussed it and made any necessary first changes, it’s time to put it into the “magic drawer” and turn it over to readers. Now, here’s the trick: there are different stages at which we need different advice. Knowing which readers to turn to at each stage, and how to decipher their responses, is a necessary art.brando-reading1

ALPHA READERS. There were only two of these for PLAGUES, and they are two people we’ve known for a very long time. It’s an odd thing with which we’re trusting them: something that will change quite profoundly before we’re done. People who don’t know us or our process would likely throw up their hands and say, “WTF? Who ever told them they could WRITE??” (Okay, I’m told neither of them felt that way, but I felt that way.) They have the ability to look at the glorious mess and say, “I got this, didn’t get that…” in some sort of cohesive fashion.

In the case of PLAGUES, they came back with 1) too many characters; 2) characters who came in the end and seemed like they were from a different story;  characters whose motivations they didn’t understand, and several plot holes, information dumps about characters that went on too long. vineyards China

Great! Ready for another draft. 1) we did have too many characters, took out any with only one scene, including Yani’s U.N. supervisor and the little boy (who later became a girl) sickened by a plague. 2) Right again, since those characters were important, they came in at the beginning and had a fuller story line. 3) True again. The first time through  we were lurching to get the plot in order. Some of the characters’ motivations were sketchy. We provided more. 4) Also true.  Trimmed a lot of character stories (it is a thriller, after all) and moved some of the rest of the info.

BETA READERS

Okay. Now we were ready for the first test group that would read something more closely approximating the finished book. We still had some structural and character work to do, but we were ready for the bulk of the editorial readers. We have some tried-and-true standby readers who’d been alerted. Also, some months earlier I had asked for volunteers on my FB page (Facebook.com/SharonLinneaAuthor) and several intrepid souls had volunteered. We had among them some Eden-followers and some Eden-newbies. Both were needed. In this case, we also needed some readers from the autism community who had been on the path with us.  We sent the manuscript without any notes, as we wanted unbiased first responses. We had a list of questions lying in wait for after they had sent their first thoughts.

This is where things get fun and helpful in different ways. You’ve obviously come to these readers for their opinions, and you get them! As it turns out, they also read for vastly different things. (Too much sex! Not enough sex! Too much bad language! Not enough language! Yani would never do that. Yani would do that all the time!) And hearing what those new to Eden got and didn’t get was also invaluable.

Fact checking also becomes interesting at this point. We had readers who pointed out the order in which events had to occur to spark gasoline explosions, and the difference between a “choir loft” and “choir stalls.” One woman said, “My bridal processional was Trumpet Voluntary and I could never have heard someone’s cellphone ring.” “I hadn’t read other Eden books; here’s what I was willing to go along with, here’s what I wished I understood.”Castel_del_Monte__Thronsaal (1)

In general, at this stage, it’s all interesting. If one person says it, pay attention. If two people say it, it’s probably true.  Somewhere along the line, you’re getting to know your new characters better, and your running characters in new ways. You make the changes that need to be made (much of it is fleshing out parts that were really shorthand to you, the author, and now the reader needs the full version). You pay attention to where they became interested and where they said they couldn’t put it down. Then tried to turn the first into the second.

GAMMA READERS.

This is the point at which I’m ready to turn the manuscript in to the professional editor at the publishing company. In the first days of Eden when our editor was Jennifer Enderlin at St. Martin’s, her comments were always great and spot on. They mostly consisted of  “more here, less here, MORE YANI.”

Our current editor, Margaret, who had not read the first Edens, was invaluable. She noted that several characters needed to be more pro-active; the ending in Italy needed to be re-staged; backstory needed to be dispersed further, and (oh, yeah) MORE YANI.Yani

Done and done.

DELTA READERS.

Finally. The readers whose judgement we trusted, but whom we saved to the last. Who could read the ms. like it was a “real book,” and wouldn’t find fault to find fault but would call our attention to things that still needed fixing.

And they did. The good news: so much closer!!! Finally the comments included comments  like, “I don’t think I’ve been this enthralled with a book for a long time. I sat on a folding chair for about 4.5-5 hrs straight, just reading,” and, “I wanted to keep reading.  In fact, I was irritated when my husband needed me to help him with yard work!”

They also noted that one part of the resolution was still abrupt (and it was).  So we jumped in to rework and finish that before it headed off for the copy editor, who is final eyes-on before it goes to the typesetter. She was impressed at how clean it was. Copy editor, meet Alpha through Delta Readers. castel_del_monte

When it came back from the copy editor and we read over it to approve any changes, it was a real sense of having made the long sea voyage. Thanks to the readers at so many stages, the 15% I couldn’t see past originally seemed grappled with, to me. When we finally hit “accept all changes,” and sent it off to Karen in production at Arundel, and therefore, to Mie, the interior designer and type setter, I did do a little dance.

One I couldn’t have known how to get to only  weeks ago. So THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU, readers! The book wouldn’t be the book it is without you. Did we make it up past that 85%, at least into the 90th percentile?

I guess you’re going to have to tell us. Which of course makes you the EPSIOLON READERS.

Go, Epsiolon!

And many thanks. Plagues 7 Hail

Recently, a woman wrote a humorous blog for Huffington Post about how much fun it was to be a Benedict Cumberbatch fangirl even though she’s middle-aged. I suspect that folks who walk into my office and see my BC calendar might suspect she speaks for me as well.

Not exactly. Or, at least, not entirely. So why do I love Benedict Cumberbatch and Charles Esten?

Benedict_CumberbatchBENEDICT CUMBERBATCH

1) Enormously talented and serious about his work, Mr. Cumberbatch spent decades honing his craft and getting a good footing playing fops and “child-raping chocolate magnates” and doing Ibsen on the stage  before his career and fame skyrocketed.  “The trajectory (of his meteoric rise) was extreme,” according to Martin Freeman, who ought to know.  You’ll notice I said he was getting a good footing–not paying his dues, as if there’s a certain amount you must pay and then you get to join the club. No such thing. But it makes all the difference in the world if you’ve gotten to work at your craft and know who you are before fame overtakes you.

2) His male co-stars go all fanboy on him. Even before the hairstylist for the second iteration of “A Study in Pink” got a hold of him and females world over took notice, seemingly every talented young man with whom he made movies had the best time ever with Ben.  I’m not sure what he and Tom Hiddleston were doing during the shooting of WAR HORSE, but whatever it was, when you see the grins they have when they talked about it, they were obviously having a grand time.  By his own admission,  Jonny Lee Miller, with whom he traded roles in Danny Boyle’s FRANKENSTEIN, used to call him up after each episode of SHERLOCK and “go all fanboy” in discussing his acting choices. But my favorite is Tom Hardy, with whom he made STUART: A LIFE BACKWARDS. There’s a video interview in which Mr. Hardy talks about Ben’s acting: “He has a sensibility and a directness and an oddness and a fantastic sense of humor…in acting, he  makes “next level choices…He’s a very generous, very sensitive, very focused, disciplined actor. ..it allows me to be free to do whatever I need to do.  Not everybody runs in the Olympics–[As an actor] Benny should be running in the Olympics.” OMG. Who freaking cares about the shirtless wonders of People’s Sexiest Man Alive” issue. “Talk talent to me” is way beyond  “talk dirty to me.”

3) He’s a gentleman. And he was long before Colin Firth held forth about it in his TIME Magazine tribute. There’s another video from STUART in which Ben arrives on set and introduces himself to all the day players, shaking hands and making them feel important and included.

4) He can chop onions. There’s a segment of a cooking show to prove it. My husband can chop onions, also. That is one reason I am married. I have little patience for men of no practical use.

5) He was nearly murdered and it changed him. He has spoken on several occasions about the time he and some of his fellow cast members from TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH were carjacked and kidnapped in South Africa and he really thought he was about to be killed. Apparently, this had a profound effect on him; he decided, once he was safe and alive, not to play it safe–that you never know when your life will end and you’d better ring every ounce of living out of it, take risks and chances. It seems he has, and it has paid off. A profound lesson for each of us.

6) He’s a silly dancer, but he doesn’t care. Have you seen him dancing to THRILLER?  He is also in good shape without having 6-pack abs. To my mind, 6-pack abs on actors is like a female actress having a size-0, prepubescent body with breasts. They’re both shapes that do not exist in nature and signify a horrific buy-in to the Hollywood zombie culture. But that’s my prejudice.  Ben is also handsome without being pretty. Much of his handsomeness comes from inside. Others could not wear the same face as well.

7) He is loyal. He is willing to work with his parents on SHERLOCK, which demonstrates an alarming vulnerability to me. He also did his best to stand up for Mark Gatiss Steven Moffat when CBS asked them to write a modern-day NYC version of Sherlock and promised they wouldn’t do one without them and then they did. Ben had a difficult dance because he was also doing his best to also be supportive of his friend Jonny Lee Miller, who was cast as Sherlock; yes, the yin and yang actors at it again. You can’t make this stuff up.

benedict-cumberbatch-perfectly-photobombs-u2-on-oscar-red-carpet8) He is an innately decent human being. He takes his art and craft seriously, but he also sees the bigger picture in the bigger world. He recognizes that, compared with many in the rest of the world, the problems he has (such as being labelled “upper class” in Britain), are “champagne problems” (as Brad Pitt advised).  Yet this guy photobombs U2. What more can I say?

 

 

CharlesEsten1CHARLES ESTEN

1) Enormously talented and serious about his craft, he was spent decades being a guest star as everything from “Secretary 67” on MURPHY BROWN to a doctor on ER. He was a regular on one season of many many shows.

2) He is smart, funny and can carry a tune. Which came in really handy on 196 episodes of WHOSE LINE IS IT ANYWAY?

10-14-12-chip23) He was known for years as Chip. Good ol’ Chip.

 

4) He has a wife and kids. And, God bless him, the same wife and kids.

5) He was into his 40s when he became a dramatic swoon-worthy, record-releasing leading man on the television show NASHVILLE. He now sings at benefits and, yes, at the Grand Ole Opry. Again, got his footing, plied his craft, and became a decent human being before “breaking out.” He also, apparently, sees a bigger world.

6) His young daughter nearly died from leukemia and it rocked his world. He and his wife now do a lot of fundraising and work for other families that have children with cancer.

 

WHY DOES THIS SPEAK TO ME?

1) First, and perhaps most obviously, I am no longer in my twenties, I have been plying my craft and getting a footing for a while now. And yes, half a million people have read the Eden Thrillers so far(!), but I wouldn’t mind a few more million. Could happen, right?

2) I can’t begin to describe the breeding ground for fiction that goes on in my mind. Nor can I describe how well both of these handsome, been-through-it decent human beings with a sense of humor are ripe with character potential.  (Have you read the movie mystery THESE VIOLENT DELIGHTS? Written before I heard of either of them, but how could you tell?) They are EXACTLY who you throw into a maelstrom of intrigue and moral quandaries and then just step back and grab your laptop.

3) I don’t know these gentlemen, and likely will never know these gentlemen, but I will tell you these very same qualities are what force me to write. Biographies about Raoul Wallenberg, the young Swedish architect who saved 100,000 Jews in Budapest at the end of World War II. About Princess Kaiulani, heir to the throne of Hawaii who brought healing and aloha to the islands, and died of a broken heart at 23.  Like Jaime Richards, our protagonist in the Eden Thrillers, I am a sucker for nobility of spirit. This is also what attracts me to my closest friends, and made me marry my husband. And while I will tell you that B.K. Sherer, my Eden co-author, who happens to also be an active duty Army chaplain, is NOT the basis for Jaime’s character, I will also tell you that’s because B.K.’s own life and character is waaaay more compelling.

It’s important to me to remember that good guys win every once in a while.

Just look at Chip and Ben.

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