We need to talk about this, just maybe not so much

img_3163I’ve started working out at a gym (again) and this time around I’m facing a challenge I haven’t seen before, and it involves breast cancer. No, I don’t have it and let me go on record as being against cancer of all types and firmly in favor of a disease free life for everyone. However ….

Someone in the gym has decided to put cute little pink sticky notes with hand-written statistics about breast cancer at eye level on the machines. I suppose if these had been in place for a week or so I might have ignored them, but it’s been almost a month now and I’m getting tired of averting my eyes. img_3161Nothing written on a sticky note is going to change my health care practices. However, I have emotional attachments to women who have died from this awful disease and to others who have bravely fought a battle that they are losing. These notes put me in a funk every time I see them. I’m fine with educating people. I’m not fine with badgering them.

trump-assult-scandalEnter sexual assault. Most women I know have experienced it in some mild form, including me, and too many of those I love have had experiences that were disturbing enough to continue to haunt and challenge them. I wish healing for them, and safety for all women. I recognize that to ignore the problem is not to solve it. I welcome honest dialog and a world striving to be better. However ….

It’s hard for these brave souls to move on, or to even have a good day, when almost every newscast addresses the topic, and half of the available entertainment feels compelled to have a scene, episode or back story about the same. When is comes to the news, a lot of this is tied to the presidential election and the way that events are unfolding. We all can’t wait for the election to be over, and for me this is just one more reason.

27-15As far as the entertainment industry goes, if I want to be positive then I think that they are striving to be relevant and, at their best, helpful. After all, I wrote a book about human trafficking with the best of intentions. When I am in a less charitable mood, I am sure that some others are only capitalizing on what they think will sell, and I understand with some sorrow how I could be accused of the same.

So I get to write a book about human trafficking but you don’t? Who decides when enough about a subject is enough, or whether the handling of a difficult topic is sensitive or exploitative?

I can’t answer that question. I do know that I never want to see ugly topics like disease and assault (and poverty, racism, domestic violence, homophobia, child neglect, human trafficking, war, and gun violence) swept under a giant collective carpet. Awareness can lead to solutions. But I also think it is fair to consider how toxic the atmosphere can become once we are fixated on a difficult subject, especially for those struggling to recover from emotional wounds that get strained a little every time the subject arises.

There are no easy answers here; just the age old need to step back from what we are doing every once in awhile, and to look honestly at our own motives and to consider the feelings of all others.

I do know that when difficult topics are handled with warmth, compassion and even a little humor, it helps. That can be a hard thing to do, and successful examples are rare.  This video, put out by the Thames Valley Police about a year ago relating the issue of consenting sex to having a cup of tea, handles a difficult subject as well as anything I have ever seen.

 

(For other oblique election commentary see my posts Everything is Going to Be Alright,  Our brand is crisis?, and Is it over yet?)

Books by an armchair traveler

It’s true.  I write books about places I’ve never been. My problem is that I want my characters to travel the world, and yet I’m limited in where I can afford to go. So I research, get help, get more help, and research some more.

c3 was my most challenging book in this regard. Most of the action in c3 takes place in Darjeeling India, in the little known nation of Bhutan, in Bangkok Thailand and along Thailand’s famous beaches. I had a fascinating time learning about each of these locales and as I wrote I fell in love with all them. In the case of c3, I was lucky enough to have four wonderful beta readers from India who helped me with accuracy and local color, and I was also able to make use of some wonderful books, the internet and well-traveled friends to fill in other gaps in my knowledge.

The internet, of course, was my most versatile tool. As I wrote about Bagdogra Airport Teddie and Michelle making their way to India, I was able to see what they might see as they arrived at the Bagdogra airport. Having these ongoing visuals made the book easier to write, and a lot more fun.
Enjoy this short excerpt about their flight.

Teddie had been to Ireland, to France and to Hawaii, so she had some idea of how miserable a long flight was on a full plane. Still. Two crying babies, one on each side? Come on. There ought to be a law.

Bagdogra Airport2Michelle, who clearly was far more excited than Teddie was about this adventure, as everyone else kept insisting on calling it, had slept through three out of the four major bouts of wailing. Now, she was wide awake and eager to explore the Frankfurt airport for a few hours before the girls boarded the second plane on to Delhi and then yet a third on to some town Teddie couldn’t even begin to pronounce. And then that would be followed by a three-hour car ride. Teddie, for her part, just wanted to sleep in a bed, preferably her own soft and cozy bed, but at this point any real bed would do…

The flight to Delhi was full too, of course, and Teddie had already been warned, many times, that from this point forward she should expect large crowds of people crammed into less space than she was used to or would like. India, only about one-third the size of the United States, had over three times as many people. It was going to be part of the cultural adjustment that was going to make “this adventure” so enriching.

 

A December 1st baby: born to give back?

It’s my birthday in 2 days, and I always felt that being born on the first of the month was a bad deal.

Anyone else: “Hey, isn’t your birthday some time this month?”
Me: “Yeah. It was last week.”
Anyone else: “Oh. Well, hope you had a good one.”

But this year I am feeling pretty special. Someone (who ever decides these things) has decreed December 1 to be Giving Tuesday. What??? Well, according to the Giving Tuesday website

“We have a day for giving thanks. We have two for getting deals. Now, we have #GivingTuesday, a global day dedicated to giving back. On Tuesday, December 1, 2015, charities, families, businesses, community centers, and students around the world will come together for one common purpose: to celebrate generosity and to give.”

Think about it. This is a totally cool idea. I mean I know people born on Global Wind Day, Australia Day, International Lefthanders Day and Free Money Day*, but a day dedicated to celebrating generosity kicks butt on all of those if you ask me.

So what am I going to do about it? If you read my posts at all you know that I’ve struggled for the past few months to get the sixth and final book in the 46. Ascending collection moving along. I took a year long break from writing, expecting to emerge at the other end of a cross-country move and job change fully refreshed and ready to create another novel. Instead, I’ve found the blank expanse in front of me more daunting than any blank screen in a newly opened word document ever was.

laotzu121075My advice to others seeking to ground themselves and move on has always been to stop thinking about yourself and do something for someone else. What good is advice if  you can’t follow your own? So tomorrow I have an appointment with a volunteer coordinator in the area who is going to help place me at one or two local agencies who are willing to train me and then use my time and expertise. I’m excited.

If you know anything about my novel c3, you know that I have a particular passion for women’s issues and a strong desire to see my sisters free and confident enough to follow their dreams. No surprise then that I will be looking at volunteering with agencies that deal with some of the worst problems that women face. I’m not naive on these subjects (have you read c3?) but I do understand that I may find myself well outside of my comfort zone. I hope to grow in strength while I help others do the same.

Does the idea of focusing on generosity for a day appeal to you as well? I’m told that one can log onto Twitter and follow the hashtag #GivingTime to join the conversation and learn more. Or go to the official website and check out their video.

Whatever you do, happy December 1.

*If you’re curious, Global Wind Day is 6/15, Australia Day is 1/26, International Lefthanders Day is 8/13 and Free Money Day is 9/15 and yes this day does involve giving away money, so it is sort of about generosity too.

Day is Done

george3Something about a winter sunset always makes me a little melancholy. I’ve been that way lately anyway, what with not writing and adjusting to a new place and a lot of little things I can’t quite put my finger on. Today I wasted hours trying to navigate options to renew my health insurance, and now the whole afternoon is already over.  Damn. Why do the inane things seem to always take so long?

I think the problem is that the main entertainment in my life is looking at my to do list each day and crossing out what is done. In my own defense, this is a beautiful, color coded list on which I use glitter pens and neon highlighters and doodle around the edges. It occurs to me that maybe I don’t like list making half as much as I like coloring.

I also spent some time today online looking for volunteer opportunities. If I’m going to be unemployed and not writing, I’ve decided to get myself out of my funk by at least making someone else’s life better.  It’s a good idea, but the potential assignments are pretty daunting. Most require hours of training, and most of the training is over for this year. The qualifications for one position actually said “ability to remain calm in all situations”.  Seriously? Calm is good, but in all situations? The frustrated writer in me went wild inventing scenarios that did not call for calm. Sigh ….

It’s a silly, childish funk I’m in and I know it. I need to pick up my laptop, move on to chapter 3 and stop stalling. The story is in my head. I can do this. It wouldn’t hurt to do some other things too of course. Go for walk. Fill out the volunteer form. Pick up my pens and doodle. Maybe even just enjoy the sunset.

Do strangers make the perfect beta readers?

“A Streetcar Named Desire” made the phrase “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers” infamous. While it is hard not to wince when the naive yet tragic Blanche DuBois utters it, I think that part of our discomfort comes from knowing that we all do rely sometimes on the goodwill of those we don’t know. Having spent the whole play or movie learning of the cruel events in Blanche’s life, this truth makes us uncomfortable, whether we find Blanche a likeable character or not.

spirit medium 1Yet there it is. Reach out beyond your normal existence and you expose yourself to the danger that those unknown to you are devoid of compassion, at least for your particular welfare. It makes a person want to stay home and deal with no one but close friends and relatives. At least, one is inclined to stick with citizens of their own “village”, those who share customs, race, religion and nationality. When possible, one even seeks out those with common age and gender too. It’s safer that way, or so we think.

Enter the internet. Those of us who have years of clear memory before it existed still marvel at the way it can and does put perfect strangers in touch with each other. Yes, we’ve added safety rails all over the place. We rank and review each other and turn to moderators and block the obnoxious. But how does it go when we find we need some strangers in our life?

If you write books, you want a few people you’ve never met to read your novels before you take them to the next step. Friends and family have certain understandable shortcomings for this task, as I wrote about on my other blog. It turns out that the internet is full of unknown curious people, some of whom will actually volunteer to read your book. Should you let them?

If it seems like an easy yes, consider how much of ones heart goes into creating a novel. It is personal. Feedback delivered too harshly can stop any endeavor. Consider that you are depending on people, waiting on them before you continue with a task that means the world to you. They may lie to you, stringing you along with promises of feedback coming before they disappear, leaving you to wonder why they bothered with such a charade. Consider that they are strangers, and you are taking a risk with them.

My most recent novel is now in the hands of thirteen people, eight of whom I’ve never met.  I’ve just heard from an older tax accountant in England who admires Margaret Thatcher, and from two young Hindu women engineers who share a passion for enlarging women’s rights in India. The British gentleman and I have played online word games for years and though we disagree about politics he has enjoyed my other books and agreed to beta read this one. My connection with the young women from India stems from one of them winning a copy of my first novel. So they aren’t total strangers, but we’ve never looked each other in the eye either, and I’ve just asked a lot of them.

sungazing2Their feedback? Helpful. Very helpful, actually. These folks spent a lot of time, caught a lot of minor mistakes, and bothered to describe their best ideas for improving my story, and they did it all very kindly. The only rewards I have to give will be a thank you at the end of the book, and a t-shirt.(I do like to give away t-shirts.) I hope that I get to meet each of them someday,and they will be strangers no longer.

It’s  an odd world. We can all choose to stay inside our own cozy homes, hoping never to get caught in a storm. It is true that storms can be dangerous. Or we can go outside every so often anyway, and feel the rain. It may be the best way to find a beta reader for one’s book. It’s the only way to turn strangers into friends.

Better or worse?

One of the unexpected advantages of deciding to write novels is that even introverts like me find themselves making “writing buddies” online. These kindred souls are often at about the same point in the journey, and they often write in a similar genre and have compatible philosophies about writing and maybe even about life. You might read and critique each others works, you certainly exchange “how to” information and encourage each other, and then you often move on. I remember each such buddy and remain thankful for their camaraderie as I strode into a frightening new world.

BrianRushBrian Rush was one. I liked his fiction; it tended more toward sword and sorcery fantasy than mine and it impressed me that while he was clearly a guy, his tales included strong believable females who had parts in the story that went well beyond merely love interest or spirit guide. He also writes a small amount of non-fiction, published and on his blog and I have enjoyed some of it at least as well.

Working full time and writing part time doesn’t leave room for a lot else, so I don’t communicate with these folks very often now. Yesterday I had occasion to read Brian’s blog. Looks like he has done a lot of writing lately, which is great, and lo and behold there he was posting about one of my favorite topics: Are things getting better?

I was once asked if I had a time machine and could go anywhere in history, where would I go? Well the first answer is that I would never under any circumstances get into a time machine, and if you want to know why you will just have to read my novel z2. But if forced into one at gunpoint, I’d set the dials for the future. There really isn’t a time in the past in which I would care to live.

raising13My family was incredulous at my answer. (I should point out that this was a discussion being held over Thanksgiving dinner). We had people at the table lined up for ancient Greece, Victorian England and somewhere when the druids were running things in Ireland.

“You have no idea what horrible things you might be heading into,” I was told. This is true. In the past the air was cleaner, the food was natural, and nobody checked their cell phone fifty times a day. We also had scurvy, slavery, open sewers, and societies in which religious tolerance was considered the work of the devil.

“Hello,” I said. “Has anyone noticed that I am female?” “Good point,” my daughter said, catching on quickly and reconsidering her one way ticket to the Italian Renaissance.

“There has not been a single point in history of which I am aware in which I would have been granted the rights, opportunities and respect that I enjoy today,” I elaborated for the rest of the group, whether they wanted to hear it or not. “Not that today is perfect. It’s just somewhere between better and a whole lot better.”

I said something like that anyway. I do believe it, too. In spite of the many stupid things we continue to do as a species (and my new book d4 coming out in two months is about this very subject!) we are improving. Learning. Becoming more tolerant and compassionate. Optimism is hard to maintain when you pull out the magnifying glass and examine the day to day news. On the other hand, it is impossible not to feel, when you step back and look at history.

Brian apparently agrees. He has written a great series of four blog posts about why he chooses not to write dark fiction beginning here and ending with this post on optimism. He concludes that “today, fewer people die from violence as a fraction of total deaths than ever before. Famine and epidemic have both declined as well. The general trend is that things have gotten better, and barring a collapse of civilization, we have every reason to expect that they will continue to get better. Take someone from 500 years in the past, pop him into a time machine to the year 2014, and his first impression on seeing the world of today would be that he had found Utopia.”

Well said, Brian. I’ll take my chances with implanted chips, genetically engineered food and climate change any day, as long as I get to be a full-fledged person when I get out of my time machine. Give me the freedom to be what I choose, and I can always use my influence to fight for a better world.

My Secret Life

I know that when I arrive at the office in the morning, I look more or less normal. I’m a few minutes late, car keys still in my hand as I give the receptionist a half-apologetic wave and head back to the small cubicle that is my home for about nine hours a day, four days a week. I fire up my computer, get some coffee, and start to do the things I am paid to do. It’s not so bad. The work is mildly entertaining, the pay is good, the coffee acceptable. I do hate the windowless cube, but I’m luckier that most. I have a secret life.

I’m late because when I woke up this morning, a young man from Romania took time out of his own busy life to post a review of my novel z2. It was a very short review, with five stars at the top and the remark that my book was now “officially among” his favorite SF books. His favorites? Do you how many are out there? How many great ones? My whole life I’ve wanted to write science fiction and now somebody says this? I think they could put me in a cement box for the next nine hours and I’d survive on the joy alone, and I am really claustrophobic.

Green 1Yes, I know that reviews are meant for fellow readers, not for the authors. I do get it, and so I will keep the joy deep inside myself. Seriously, though, how can I not care at all?

I’m also late because a young woman in Indonesia won my novel c3 in a giveaway and took the time to write an almost 1000 word review and posted it this morning. She gave me five stars as well, and used my novel about young women who triumph over human traffickers as a spring board to look into the problem in her own country. Her research fills most of the review and it is impressive.I hear a possible advocate for better education and enforcement in her voice, and I am proud to have written something that has moved her to feel so passionately. I have tears in my eyes and I want to thank her for listening, for caring, for getting it, but of course I cannot do that.

Writers are not supposed to respond to reviews. It makes perfect sense. Reviews are to alert other readers about what is good and bad about a novel. Who in the world is going to write one if they risk getting in an online argument with the author for doing so? I certainly wouldn’t. So, no response.

Instead, I sit in my cube and sip my coffee. I check my office email then I move on to the project at hand. Few people here even know that I write books. Today, I’m smiling inside, thinking of two random people across the globe who I have managed to touch against all odds. It’s a secret life, but it keeps me very happy.