Sunday, January 15, 2012

Faith and Values

Sometimes fate seems to bombard you with bits and pieces of life that all seem related. That's been happening to me this past week, so I'm going to try to sort these bits and pieces into some kind of coherent post today, as much for myself as for anyone who is reading this blog.

First of all, there was all the media coverage of Tim Tebow. Now, I don't follow football, but you couldn't escape the stories about this extraordinary young man. And the controversy over the way he prays on the field and thanks his Lord Jesus Christ at every opportunity. It bothers me that there is a controversy over this. After all, isn't freedom of religion what this country was founded on? Doesn't the First Amendment guarantee this right?

I've never considered myself a fan of Newt Gingrich, but his statement during a recent debate about the anti-Christian bigotry in this country rang true for me as much as it shocked and surprised me. It seems as if everyone except Christians is allowed to espouse their cause in America today.

And then I was reading Story by Robert McKee and came upon this quote:
"Values, the positive/negative charges of life, are at the soul of our art. The writer shapes story around a perception of what's worth living for, what's worth dying for, what's foolish to pursue, the meaning of justice, truth -- the essential values. In decades past, writer and society more or less agreed on these questions, but more and more ours has become an age of moral and ethical cynicism, relativism, and subjectivism -- a great confusion of values. As the family disintegrates and sexual antagonisms rise, who, for example, feels he understands the nature of love? And how, if you do have a conviction, do you expose it to an ever more skeptical audience?
 "The erosion of values has brought with it a corresponding erosion of story."
Wow! That is something I'd never thought of. I know I much prefer to watch old movies rather than the new ones Hollywood is making today. I hadn't consciously thought that the lack of cultural values was related to that.  But it makes sense. If you can't write about beliefs, you're left with a special effects extravaganza, which is what we seem to see coming out of Hollywood today. Without writers, producers, and directors who are willing to create new material reflecting their values, we get the third remake of a movie or television show from the past which wasn't so great to begin with.

I think the theme of faith and values is one of the things that made Firefly one of the greatest television series ever. It took me three viewings of the entire series plus the movie, Serenity, to realize that the story of the lead character, Malcolm Reynolds, was largely a story of faith lost and found. That's how long it took me to focus on the scene before the Battle of Serenity Valley where Mal takes a cross on a chain out of his shirt and kisses it. When the battle is lost and he is ordered to surrender, Mal loses faith, not only in God, but in love.

Offsetting Mal's character are the characters of Shepherd Book and Inara, a registered "companion". Shepherd Book appears to have had the opposite change in his life. It's hinted at that he was once an operative for the Alliance, but has found faith and is now a clergyman. Inara, while working as a geisha or call girl, believes in love, hopefully with Mal. Mal is willing to let neither faith nor love into his life. He fights it at every turn.

Yet, at the end of it all, Mal is at least considering the possibility of love and faith. I'm less certain of the second, but his actions say that he has not lost his values. Every member of the crew of the ship Serenity, led by their captain, is willing to sacrifice his or her life to expose the truth. And that's what makes the movie so powerful.

I've never been one to advertise my faith. In the past I've had more in common with Malcolm Reynolds than Tim Tebow. But I'm thinking that maybe, if I want to write good stories, I've got to examine what I believe in and use that in the stories I write.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Book Review: The Son of Man by C.W. Johnson

I've decided to add some indie published books to my reading list this year. The explosion in self-published ebooks, coupled with the troubles of traditional publishing has made for interesting choices for both readers and writers. I've been very curious about the quality of these self-published books and whether self-publishing is a viable option instead of waiting the endless months and/or years it takes to get traditionally published.

I perused the list of free ebooks on Barnes and Noble, the search criteria for which I found on nookboards.  I chose free first because I figured why pay for a book if there was something in the free category that was good? I know a lot of indie authors offer a book for free or at the ninety-nine cent price point to encourage new readers to check them out. The hope is that the reader will like the free book so much they'll pay for other books by the author. In addition, I omitted books that have been previously published by a traditional publisher. Authors who have gotten their rights back are publishing their backlists and often use the same marketing tactic to attract new readers. But I don't consider these books truly indie. They may be publishing the ebooks themselves, but the books originally went through the traditional route and have been edited for content and copyedited for grammar, spelling, etc. by professionals. I wanted to see what a new writer's work looks like.

The Son of Man has a four star rating based on 66 user reviews on Barnes and Noble. The glowing reviews of so many readers, plus the fact that the premise of the book sounded interesting, made it the first indie book I've read since Amanda Hocking. I was pleasantly surprised by her work and was hoping for something similar here. It didn't happen.

The story question is "What if DNA from the blood of Christ, taken from two relics, was cloned to bring about the second coming?" I liked this because it actually fits with the Biblical account of the first coming. The Jews were expecting the Messiah to be a military leader, a political king of Israel, and lead them to victory over their enemies, establishing God's kingdom here on earth. That wasn't the way things were. Jesus, while fulfilling the prophesies in His own way, wasn't what they expected. The kingdom of God wasn't a political kingdom according to Him. It was in the hearts of His disciples. So it seems entirely logical, in an ironic sort of way, that God would choose cloning rather than a descent from the clouds to fulfill the second coming.

Unfortunately, the original premise wasn't fulfilled by the book. While the story of Maria and Todd (the stand-ins for Mary and Joseph) and the conflicts in their strange relationship and the cloning of the baby are interesting, the subplots seemed pointless and confusing. Brother Michael, who is early on referred to as the Jesus guy, is puzzling. I kept wondering if he was going to turn out to be the true Christ or whether he was the antichrist, but instead he appears to be a John the Baptist character. His activities with his homeless companions don't seem to have a point, although that may have been brought out later in the book.

I don't know because I couldn't finish reading this book. I kept trying, but after 300 "pages" (out of 900), I quit to read something that was better written. There are long sections that could have been cut. It needs a good copyedit to fix punctuation, inconsistent capitalization, etc. And two adjectives (sometimes with an adverb) are not better than one.

The author also has a habit of writing generic actions, e.g., "The whole world cheered." Well, no. Not only do I doubt that everyone on the entire planet cheered at this point, it would have been much more effective to show the characters we've already met cheering over this news. That would have made both the cheering and the individuals more real.

This book starts with an original idea and has some good storytelling, but it is just too flawed to give it more than two stars.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Giving Back

I spend an awful lot of time thinking about what I don't have. Like most Americans, I want more. I regret choices I made in the past. Had I made them differently, I would have had things in my life that I don't have now. I complain about the economy and the lack of good job opportunities. I, along with everyone else, look at what's happened to my retirement savings over the years and want to cry.

When I get into those moods, I have to remind myself of how much I do have. I may not have a job I love, but I was unemployed only two weeks after I got laid off from my last one. Others have been out of work for months or years. I'm not homeless. I have a house that's safe and warm. The only time I go to bed hungry is when I'm trying to lose weight.

I have a loving son who is successful in his own right, never got into trouble with the law, and married the most wonderful woman a mother could wish for. Even though I'm basically a loner, I have friends who I can call on when I need help.

I belong to a church that believes in Missions and Service. We run a food pantry that not only gives out boxes of food from the Community Food Bank, but supplements that with bags of food donated by the congregation. The church also has a medical loan chest for items of equipment that people may not be able to afford to buy.

Another program that the church takes part in is the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program. This is a government-sponsored program administered by AARP that helps low-to-moderate income people file their tax returns at no charge. Tax returns are intimidating to a lot of people. It doesn't help that the law changes every year. The poor and elderly are often overwhelmed by the verbiage and calculations required to fill out the forms. They are often unaware of tax credits that they are entitled to take and can wind up paying more than their fair share of taxes because of this.

Tomorrow I start a week long training program to be one of those volunteers. It means using up vacation days from work to participate, but another benefit I have is plenty of vacation time.

Last year I didn't volunteer for the VITA program. I told myself I didn't have time. My life was already too full. Not only do I have a full time job, I'm trying to write a publishable novel, I have a house and yard to take care of, there were errands to run, books to read, meetings to go to. In particular, tax time overlaps with the best time of year for working outdoors in Tucson. By the time April 15th rolls around, it's already getting too warm to spend much time doing yardwork during the day. I told myself that I needed more time for myself to keep up with things.

You know what? That yardwork didn't get done anyway. Part of it was the weather. Last February was ridiculous. We had two days where it didn't get above freezing during the day and went down to eighteen degrees overnight. All that pruning that we usually do in February couldn't be done. Part of it was choices I made. I don't remember what I did instead, but it certainly wasn't weeding and gardening.

I'm pretty good about writing checks to charity, but I don't think that's the same as giving of yourself. As giving of your time. I don't think I have the ability to do a lot of the tasks that volunteers do. But I can do this. I know my way around a computer and I can understand the rules for filling out tax returns. It's not very much in the grand scheme of things. I know people who do so much more. But at least I can make a little bit of difference in this world that needs so many things to be done.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Thoughts on the First Day of 2012

I'm pretty sure the practice of making New Year's resolutions has gone out of style. Everyone knows that promising you'll quit smoking/lose weight/exercise more is pretty much going to fail. By the end of January you're back to your same old habits.

I haven't made resolutions in years, but I usually set goals. Last year I had a huge list of things I was going to accomplish in 2011. I know this because I dug out that list today to evaluate how I'd done. The answer was not very well. My ambitious list was made up with the assumption that I'd retire half-way through 2011 and thus have plenty of time to work on being a writer. However, when it came down to it, I realized that my financial status was such that retirement in 2011 was out of the question.

That wasn't the only disappointment I had. I entered two writing contests, hoping to do well enough in them to validate that I had talent as a writer. I didn't do well in either of them. I almost gave up at that point. After all, I've been trying to write a publishable novel for what? eight years? or is it more? But I keep coming back to the fact that if I don't write, I have no idea what I'm supposed to do with the rest of my time on earth.

I put that novel aside and started thinking about what I would write next. I had this idea for a time travel science fiction romance adventure story. Yeah, that's not really a genre, but think Diana Gabaldon with spaceships. It would be a major challenge because I've never written anything like an epic fantasy novel, but the idea is intriguing.

And then I got sucked into the whole idea of indie, or self-, publishing my work. After all, even if I wrote the best book in the world, the odds of finding an agent and making a sale to a Big 6 publishing house were slim at best. And publishing moves at a snail's pace. Even if I queried tomorrow and got an agent this week, it would be at least a year before my book hit the shelves of your local bookstore. And reality says that it would take a lot longer than a week to get an agent. With indie publishing, I could upload it to Amazon and Barnes and Noble as soon as the book was done.

I've read a lot of information on indie publishing and the consensus seems to be that to be a success, you need to write series so the reader has a next book to start reading as soon as they finish one where they've become engaged with the characters and the setting. And you need to have a lot of books. So the time travel romance went on the back burner while I sketched out a sequel to the book with the problem.

But I wrestled with writing cozy mysteries. Was it really the genre I wanted to write? Or could I write women's fiction with a Christian slant like Judy Duarte? After thinking for years that I wanted to be a mystery writer, I wasn't sure any more. I started submitting chapters of the first mystery to a critique group and realized that the book was in worse shape than I thought it was, making it even more difficult for me to figure out where I want to go from here.

So, in contrast to last year, my list of goals for 2012 is very short:
1. Write 15 new pages every week.
2. Continue to revise and submit chapters to critique group.
3. Resume healthy eating.
4. Consciously track spending versus income and develop realistic plan to achieve retirement.

In order to accomplish #1, I signed up for a class which requires you to write 3 pages a day every day in the month of January. I'm hoping that by participating I'll be able to get in the habit of daily writing without the excesses of NaNoWriMo that tend to drain me for the next month.

I also signed up for a Margie Lawson class to help me get a more positive attitude. I went to her site originally because I've heard great things about her Deep Edits class, but I probably need the January one more right now.

And, just in time, Holly Lisle made a post to her blog that gave me some encouragement. Yes, even multi-published authors sometimes have a This Book is Wrecked moment or seven. Knowing that it happens to other writers and that there are ways to fix it has given me the strength to keep trying for a while longer.

And I'll reevaluate sometime in the spring to figure out what I'll do next.