Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Value of One Person

I usually read a meditation each morning before I eat my breakfast. If I don't purposefully build habits, I never get into them. Making time for God wasn't a priority in my life until the past few years. I decided that reading a short meditation each day, then saying grace, was a habit that wouldn't take a whole lot of time and was something worth doing.

This morning's meditation shared a quote from Mother Teresa:
I don't know what the success will be--but if the Missionaries of Charity have brought joy to one unhappy home--made one innocent child from the streets keep pure for Jesus--one dying person die in peace with God--don't you think, Your Grace, it would be worthwhile offering everything--for just that one--because that would bring great joy to the heart of Jesus.
 This is a sentiment that resonates strongly with me. It was almost the theme for my first Community of Faith mystery. (As I wrote the book, I discovered another theme that spoke louder to me for that book.)

As I'm writing, I often worry about finding an audience. Will anyone buy my book? Will anyone read it? Will anyone like it? Will it have meaning to anyone but myself? I knew when I started it that it would not have a large audience, but I hoped that out of the millions of readers in this world, some number would like it.

John Locke, in "How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months", says that all you need to be a success is 10,000 true fans. I don't think this idea is original with him, but he certainly has popularized it. You don't need to please millions of readers, you just need 10,000 loyal people who will buy everything you write. He comes out of marketing and most of his book is the way he found his 10,000 fans. If you do the math, you can also see that he had to write a lot of books to sell a million of them. He admittedly is not looking to write great literature, just books that are good enough.

Even 10,000 readers sounds like a lot to me. Like most writers, I tend to be more shy than gregarious. The idea of standing on a street corner--even if it's the virtual street corner of the Internet--makes me queasy. There are all kinds of theories about how you find your readers in this new age of publishing, but the truth is that no one really knows. The only thing we know for sure is that the way readers discover new books is by word of mouth. If your best friend tells you they liked a book, there's a good chance you'll read it. If you like it, you'll tell someone else. Hopefully two someone elses. Obviously, it takes a long time for this geometric progression to get to large numbers.

Then, in that serendipitous way that life has of putting two related things together for you, I moved on to reading "On Writing" by Stephen King. Actually, I'm re-reading this one. I'm pretty much always reading a writing craft book in addition to a work of fiction. Reading about craft keeps my head in the game. The section I read this morning included this:
Call that one person you write for Ideal Reader. He or she is going to be in your writing room all the time: in the flesh once you open the door and let the world back in to shine on the bubble of your dream, in spirit during the sometimes troubling and often exhilarating days of the first draft, when the door is closed. And you know what? You'll find yourself bending the story even before Ideal Reader glimpses so much as the first sentence."
This caused one of those mental "Huh" moments. Didn't I just read something very like that in a totally different context? Two people I highly respect seemed to be sending the same message. You don't need to worry about millions--or even 10,000. Your goal should be to focus on one person at a time. I think I can do that, both in my writing and in my Christian life.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Another Writing Milestone

Yesterday morning I did the Snoopy dance. Before work, I finished revising my Work In Progress. I only had five pages to go, but it took a long time. In the rush of exhilaration that accompanies getting to "The End," those last pages were filled with swaths of dialogue. A sentence or two of description. Another one of character emotion. A little action. But, as Margie Lawson's EDITS system showed me, most of those pages were blue (blue equaling dialogue).

So I needed to add green and pink and red to balance the scene, flesh it out so it wasn't just talking heads, make it come to life. This isn't easy, particularly at five A.M. when the coffee hasn't kicked in yet. Adding body language tends to lead to repeated "He nodded" or "She sighed" types of actions. Hearts are always pounding or pulses racing.

I have to sit there, really thinking about what happiness feels like or despair feels like or anxiety feels like and write it fresh. This is not an easy task for someone who, for many years, only felt "uncomfortable." It took a long time and some serious help for me to be able to put words like sad or anxious or even happy to that uncomfortable feeling. Fortunately, I've found an excellent book, "The Emotion Thesaurus," which helps me with that part. I also use an old Writer's Digest Book, "Building Believable Characters," for figuring out body language and emotions.

Despite Stephen King's admonition to go with your first word, I find that my first word choice is often not the best choice. Sometimes I'll do things like write "tumble" when I really meant "stumble." Or I'll repeat a word (She opened the door. He came through the door. Closing the door...) This kind of repetition really annoys me. So I'm off to "Roget's Super Thesaurus" to find the word I really meant or a different word for door (He came through the entry might work.) or a word that works better. Words have nuances of meaning. A small change in a word can lead to a big change in how a character or a scene is perceived.

It's been rewarding this month to watch the pile of pages with completed revisions grow while the yet-to-be-revised pile shrank. When I started this pass through, I knew it was going to be difficult. I had shuffled scenes around, making events happen in a different order, so there were definitely continuity problems that had to be fixed. (Like talking about a barbecue before the characters actually went to it.) I knew I had to add more emotion and description so my reader will feel and see what I do when I read a scene. Sometimes it felt like I was never going to finish as my self-imposed deadline approached and then whooshed by. Some days I felt as if a scene was never going to be right. And some days I felt a rush of pleasure when a mediocre scene came to life after working on it.

So it was with great joy that I added that last page to the completed stack yesterday morning. I've taken one more step on the road to publishing my book.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

U.S. Border Patrol

Not too long after I moved to Arizona six years ago, the apartment complex I lived in invited a member of the U.S. Border Patrol to speak to us. Since I'm a law enforcement junkie and had noted how often I passed Border Patrol vehicles on the highway (something that was very unusual to someone from the Northeast), I was all over this. It made such an impression that I wrote a scene based on this talk in my current novel.

I'd been wondering how current the information I had was, since a lot has changed over the past six years. I did a lot of web searches to update the numbers I used (number of illegal aliens that cross over in the Tucson sector, pounds of drugs seized, etc.),  but I wasn't sure how to update the "flavor" of what the agent had said. People don't read novels to get educated, even though that's sometimes a side effect. People read novels for the emotional experience. Writers need to know their subject intimately enough to create that emotional experience for readers. Fortunately, the Tucson Sisters in Crime chapter invited Agent Simon Keller to give a similar talk to our chapter last week.

The original focus of the agency was on immigration. Even with this focus, ten years ago there were no real penalties for entering the country illegally. It was only after crossing the border 29 times illegally that a person was given a penalty equivalent to a speeding ticket. Today, the first time an illegal alien is caught, (s)he is subject to administrative removal. This means that they are brought before a judge within one to two days, officially sentenced that they are forbidden from entering the United States for five years, and transported to Nogales, Mexico.

 After 9/11, the focus shifted to terrorism. It's not just Mexicans who come over the border illegally. If you're looking for terrorists, you're probably looking for OTMs (Other Than Mexican) from what Agent Keller referred to as "special interest countries." Interestingly enough, a lot of Chinese cross over at Nogales. (China is not a special interest country. I guess life in the United States is more attractive than life in China.)

During the years following 9/11, there was a lot of money available to the Border Patrol. Now, several years into the Great Recession (I refuse to agree that it's over), there's significantly less money to protect our borders. Because of this, the focus has switched from resource-based activities to risk-based activities. The strongest deterrents are placed where there is the highest risk of an illegal alien (the official term) escaping detection.



Nogales is a town that straddles the border between Mexico and the United States. In this urban area, it takes only seconds to possibly minutes for an illegal border crosser to disappear into a neighborhood. In urban areas like Nogales, a fence has been built to keep people from crossing.




 Surrounding the cities, it takes longer for an illegal border crosser to disappear into the desert. In this case, the time factor is minutes to hours. The solid fence isn't necessary. Permanent vehicle barriers are erected as a deterrent.

Further out in the desert, where it can take hours to days for an illegal crosser to evade detection, temporary vehicle barriers can be erected. These have the advantage that they can be moved to wherever the current hot spots are.

Due to these vehicle barriers, Arizona's vehicle theft rate has dropped dramatically. It's not quite as easy for a thief to grab a vehicle from a shopping center parking lot and make a dash over the Mexican border. What are the stolen vehicles used for? To smuggle drugs and people into the United States. Anything that can be done to slow the illegal traffic over the border is a good thing.

In FY 2011, the Tucson Sector accounted for half of all marijuana seizures and half of all arrests of illegal aliens nationwide. While arrests have dropped from 616,000 annually in 2000 to 123,000 in 2011, the amount of drugs continues to increase. There were 240,000 pounds of marijuana seized in the Tucson Sector in 2000. Last year, 1,039,000 pounds were seized. Yes, you read that right. Over one million pounds of marijuana were seized in the Tucson Sector alone in one year. It's unknown how many pounds of marijuana came over undetected.

To end this on a positive note, here is a video from the Yuma Sector of the Border Patrol which shows how much things have improved:


Images:
US Customs and Border Protection Patch: Official logo of a U.S. government agency whose usage is believed to qualify under Fair Use.
Vehicle: By Bill Morrow (Flickr: Border Patrol checkpoint) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Border Fence: By Sgt. 1st Class Gordon Hyde (US-Mexico barrier at Nogales) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Permanent Vehicle Barrier: Posted to flickr by On the White Line at http://www.flickr.com/photos/42406847@N07/6796328472/