Category Archives: Research

Expanding Empathetic Horizons

I tried to find a synonym to "horizons" that started with an "e", because a little alliteration for a title is always kinda neat methinks. Alas, I found none.

Aristotle theorized that people who read fiction in particular are better able to understand and experience life, and empathize more with their peers.

Several studies have shown his theory has credence: The Neuroscience of Your Brain on Fiction

What I found most interesting in the article was how the mere mention of a word such as cinnamon or other smells lights up the part of the brain dedicated to smells as if that person actually smelled it. The same goes for how fiction describes characters, their thoughts and how they interact with other characters and their surroundings. Our brain activity when reading reacts as if we're engaging with actual people.

So if we want a more empathetic society, we need to read, and encourage others (children especially) to read more. It doesn't have to be fiction only, because some non-fiction is written in the same way as fiction such as describing the world around them, and interactions with others.

God's genius is obvious here, because he not only designed our brains to learn language at an early age, but the desire to share our lives and experiences through that language, whether written or spoken. He did so, because of our inherent need to understand the world around us, ourselves, and each other.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have some reading to do.

"We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are. Sheep lice do not seem to share this longing, which is one reason why they write so little." —Anne Lamott

The Science in Morality

When thinking of the natural world — science if you will — we rarely tie morality into it. They should be mutually exclusive, because science is the study of the natural world, whereas morality is considered a construct invented by man (or God depending on your beliefs) in order to create civil society.

I watched a video where a philosopher contorted herself into a mental pretzel while trying to describe how some "early fetuses" have no moral status when other "early fetuses" do, and as such abortion is not a moral issue.

Aside: This post isn't about abortion, per se, but about how biological knowledge can and should, in many circumstances, define our morality.

Nowhere in the video did the philosopher or the two men interviewing her bring up the biology of said fetuses and how one — scientifically speaking — has moral status, and therefore a right to be born, when another doesn't. You can find the video here:

https://youtu.be/r5SQnQjryzI

This in turn reminded me of another conversation (paraphrased, because it happened a while ago) when someone argued that biology and laws have no bearing on each other, especially when it comes to human rights.

I said (again paraphrased), "Biology has everything to do with it. For instance, we don't give monkeys or dogs the same rights as humans. Why? Because they're not biologically human."

Humans have known that almost instinctively for thousands of years, even though they had no idea what a cell looked like, let alone a DNA strand that more definitively proves the differences between all species, whether animal, plant, or other.

I'll even wager most of our morals depend on our understanding of the natural world. They should be, and always remain, intrinsically linked.

A few months ago, I read portions of Leviticus. Many find it dry and boring, because it contains laws about holiness, ritual cleanliness, family life, and a slew of others.

What I found most interesting is many of the laws, especially with regard to sanitation, we use and take for granted today. The difference is, we do those things not for religious or moral reasons, but because we understand the science of how diseases spread.

If we choose to ignore biology, and try to make a "moral" stance based on how we think our biology should be instead of what it is, we do so at our own peril.

That society is trying to erase what it means to be human, man, woman, boy and girl, became abundantly clear with the reaction to the release of the so-called "Google memo." You can find the text of the memo below. I encourage you to read it, and not depend on my opinion of it (or anyone else for that matter, including the writer of the linked article):

http://gizmodo.com/exclusive-heres-the-full-10-page-anti-diversity-screed-1797564320

Mr. James Damore (who wrote the memo) made a valid point — which many scientists have proven time and again — that men and women are different. Men — on average — react one way to a particular situation, and women — on average — react another way. One isn't necessarily better or worse than the other. It should show, however, that men and women complement each other. Where one is weak, the other is strong, and vice-versa. When we work together as partners with different roles to play — other than having and raising children — we can accomplish great things.

In short, trying to make women and men, and boys and girls the same, we both ignore and destroy what makes each beautiful, unique, and strong. Morally, we should acknowledge, encourage, and embrace our biological differences, because if we don't, we will, in the end, destroy each other and ourselves.

Twenty-Two Days

That’s the average response time to short stories submitted to a magazine that publishes fantasy, science fiction and horror. I’ve read three issues so far, and think my short story that won 2nd place in last year’s Writers Digest competition would make a good fit.

We’ll see.

In approximately 22 days.

The worst part about the whole process of submitting articles and short stories is hitting that awful “submit” button (or dropping that proposal or query letter into the mailbox). Once I do, there’s no turning back. No more chances to edit out any mistakes, make any other changes to the plot, grammar, setting, characters . . . nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. It’s like sending a child away to school, or discovering it’s time he left the house to create a life of his own. My story is now out of my hands, out of my control. It’s my heart and my mind on display, and I can’t help but think, “Now I get to find out if the editors of this magazine thinks the story is good, or if it’s crap.”

Not submitting it is always easy, because in my dreams, my stories always find a place. They receive nothing but accolades.

But it’s not real, and reality can suck sometimes. I’m like most writers in that I often prefer my fantasies. In my fantasy worlds, I am in control. Submitting stories and articles for others to judge is purposefully relinquishing that control, and my opinions and biases are shown to either be spot on, or completely spot off.

It’s a terrifying thing to step out of my made-up world and take a chance that in reality, everything I created is nothing like I believed and hoped it was.

That said, in case my story is rejected by this magazine, it doesn’t make my story crap. It simply means they didn’t find it a good fit for them. There are other magazines out there, and in fact, I have another in mind (I went back and forth for a few days trying to decide which to try first. It boiled down to response time. The one I submitted to is a bit quicker). Like many others, neither magazine takes simultaneous submissions, so I have to submit it one at a time.

Time will tell.

I’ll keep you apprised.

10,000 Ways

One of my favorite quotes is by Thomas Edison when he talked about creating a light bulb:

I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.

With my first rejection letter out of the way, I can now say I know one way that won’t work.

But I am impatient. Always have been.

I buy a lot of books — too many of which I haven’t read — on subjects ranging from basic economics to warfare.

They collect dust, because for some reason I keep thinking that the mere presence of a book on my shelf means I can learn the subject, as if I can absorb it through osmosis. It’s a sad realization that I don’t necessarily want to learn new things; I want to know them without having to work to get there.

Unfortunately for me, to find an agent who’ll hopefully find me a publisher requires not only patience, but a lot of studying and research. I have to study each prospective agent carefully to see if they will not only be a good fit for representing my book, but also a good fit for me personally. I will, after all, be working with said agent — for years if everything goes right.

I must be like Thomas Edison, and continue to write, to pursue, and figure just the right combination for success, even if it means learning 10,000 ways how not to do it.

To quoth Mr. Edison again:

Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.

God willing, it won’t take me literally 10,000 tries. I’ll settle for 12. Okay maybe 20. 50?

Schmooze and Charm

Am I charming?

It’s a question I never before asked myself. I don’t recall if anyone’s ever accused me of it, either. Perhaps in my teenage years I tried to charm people, because who doesn’t want to be loved and accepted by his/her peers?

Now that I’m older, and I care quite a bit less about what people think of me; charming others is not even the tiniest of my many goals in life. Sure, I want love and respect – who doesn’t? What I’m willing to do to get it is the question. Truth is, not much. I simply don’t have the desire or the energy to schmooze people

ASIDE: Isn’t “schmooze” a great word? It goes great with – and can even replace – charming, because the simple definition of schmooze is “To talk with someone in a friendly way, often in order to get some advantage for yourself” (Per Merriam-Webster).

People are selfish, and I’m no exception. Too often, when someone describes another as “charming,” it’s not always a compliment. The term implies an almost dishonesty, that the charmer is only in it for him/herself – to gain something in return.

Unless the person wants to be charmed, or schmoozed.

Now why would anyone want that – to purposely be “taken advantage of”?

Feeling a bit overwhelmed with writing query letters, I purchased a book called “Rock Your Query,” by Cathy Yardley. It’s a short read at only 61 pages (Nook Book), but that’s its strength. The author’s advice was succinct, and as such took away all the mystery of what a query letter should contain, and what to avoid.

The second chapter focused on the opening paragraph. She suggests that it needs to focus specifically why the writer chose that particular agent. In other words, don’t be afraid to schmooze a bit. Be charming.

The agent in question, after all, wants to be schmoozed. Not to be taken advantage of, per se. The end result is a partnership between writer and agent where they both get paid from the profits of the published book(s).

So now I have to ask if I can be charming. Can I schmooze prospective agents enough to pique their interest?

I don’t know. And perhaps that’s even the wrong question to ask.

If I gained any wisdom from reading “On Writing,” by Stephen King it’s his advice to never lie to readers. They can always tell.

The same holds true with everything I write. All I can do while writing a query letter is to be as honest as I am with my fiction and whatever else I write. Everything else will simply have to take care of itself, because no matter how much I can schmooze (or not) someone, I can’t force them to do what I want. They will either be intrigued enough to ask for more, or they won’t.

I’m reminded of a line in the movie “Trading Places,” where Eddie Murphy’s character said (paraphrased), “What do they want from me, Coleman?”

“Just be yourself, sir. No matter what happens, they can’t take that away from you.”

Charming or not, all I can do is be me, because that’s what I’m best at anyway.

At the Precipice

I hate heights, and I know when it all started.

I think it was either pre-school or kindergarten, and the class went on a field trip. We went to a park, and at one point dug for tiny seashells near the bank of a river. The bank was very steep (and to my childlike brain had to be hundreds of feet high, but was likely no more than ten). While I stood looking down at the river below, another child pushed me. Not hard enough to make me fall, but certainly enough to scare me.

I’ve been afraid of high places ever since. What’s weird is I don’t mind flying and even took a hot air balloon ride once. Good luck getting me up a ladder, though.

With all my novels mostly complete, it’s now time to dive into seeking agents. I already found a few that look promising, so all I need to do now is write my query letter,  and synopsis. I don’t look forward to either, but it’s gots to be done.

The main part is how do you boil down a 100k book down to three pages, seven at the most (depending upon the agent’s guidelines)? Most understand that synopses don’t need to be perfect, as long as they know what happens from beginning to end.

The query letter I find most intimidating, because, like the cliché says, “You have only one chance to make a good impression.”

I want it to be interesting, and even engaging, but professional. Informative, but not boring or dry.

I stand at the precipice where I must dive into the dark below, not knowing if my efforts will succeed or fail.

Part of me wants to start another book so I can avoid finding someone willing to represent my finished novels.

Because dreaming is easy. Making it come true with no guarantee of success is hard, and downright terrifying.

Much like my fear of heights. If I want to fly and not merely imagine what flying is like, I must jump off that cliff.

Are My Teeth Strong Enough?

Recently I was offered a volunteer editing job for an organization based out of Asia helping to start new churches and orphanages.

I’ve edited one newsletter so far, which took all of fifteen minutes to do. It was quite well-written, especially for someone who’s English isn’t his native language.

I was also asked how many I could edit a year, and I told them one every two weeks would be doable.

Thinking all requests would be easy like the last one.

I may have bitten off more than I could chew.

A few nights ago I received the following email (in part):

“I have a very rough story (it’s a bit difficult story). You will need to work on it to be developed into a story. What I have in the attachment is a basic story and very rough outline. Will you be able to develop it into a story? The audience will be our friends in the US. If you need to do any research on alcoholism, winter or the plight of slums, you can always do a Google search. If you need any specific information, do let me know.

But you do have full freedom to do this story. You will have to rework it completely. You have that freedom.

So how do I describe the sounds, the smells and the overall sense of a place I’ve never been? I found hundreds, if not thousands of photos of the slums, so describing the look will be easy.

To create an immersion of the place for readers will be difficult, and more than a little daunting. And not only the five senses, but the spiritual sense of the place, the despair, the anger, and sorrow. How can I capture that in such a way without being over-dramatic, but to someone who has been there can say, “She got it right.”

I’ve never sat down and consciously prayed before I wrote anything. I just wrote. In this case, however, I will have to pray quite hard before a single word is typed, because I don’t think I can write this on my own — and have it be believable, and honest.

I’m writing, after all, about real people in real circumstances. To over-dramatize or change their life story to fit my idea of what it should be is the height of disrespect, both to the people who live it, and the readers who want to know the truth of what happened, and is happening.

Old Lady Kayaking

IMG_0893Last Thursday I attended a Bloggers and Writers Workshop at Fort Lincoln State Park sponsored by North Dakota Department of Commerce.

The first part of the day consisted of travel writer and filmmaker Joe Baur who gave the attendees advice such as conquering fear of new places and new people. He shared some of his own fears such as even leaving his hometown to visit larger cities. Other sage advice he gave is since the internet is so visual, if we want to gain more readership, we must add visual elements such as photos and videos.

This in particular grabbed my attention, because I love taking pictures. I’ve also wondered how I could work it into my writing, or even if I should. It takes a bit of extra time to add visual elements to a blog post, but if it means gaining more readers, certainly the extra five to ten minutes adding the photos would be worth it.

He also mentioned that we must set a schedule for our releases (something I’ve slacked on of late). If we’re not consistent in our writing, we very quickly lose our readers.

Jenna Cederberg, Editor of Montana Magazine spoke next. Her focus was on knowing what you’re submitting your writing to. Know the magazine or publisher, because an editor will know right away whether or not you read their publications. She also stressed the importance of relationships. Successful publishing is largely due to good relationships between author and editor. Once you establish good ones, hold on to them.

After we broke for lunch, we had round-table discussions with Joe, Jenna, and Kim Schmidt, the public relations manager of the ND Department of Commerce where we could ask more in-depth questions. Kim gave us all advice on how to use social media to its fullest. Her focus was on the relationship we can build with them. They need North Dakota writers to help promote the wonders of our state that the rest of the nation doesn’t see. The best part is, when we promote them, they’ll link and add our writings to their publications and social media. It’s a win-win. She also said (and I’ve seen it, too) looking at North Dakota nationally, we’re the windy, cold, vast prairie with nothing to offer but agriculture, rising crime and oil.

When we are so, so much more than that.

But that’s another entry – or twelve.

Afterward, we had the choice to either tour the Custer House, Barracks and Indian Village, or go on a bike ride, hiking and kayaking. I chose the latter, because I’ve toured the Custer House before.

They were kind enough to provide the bikes, which, surprisingly enough, I only wobbled a few minutes before my muscles remembered that bike-riding thing. I guess it’s really true you never forget.

We rode down to where the Heart River converges with the Missouri. Waiting for us was a father and son team from Missouri River Kayak Rentals with enough kayaks for the small group. I told Kim I was staying on shore, and that I would take pictures. She said, “You really should go.”

I remembered Joe saying that we need to step out of our comfort zone. I said okay. After all the instructions (and there weren’t many), we donned our life jackets (also provided) and proceeded down to the water’s edge. I managed to step into the kayak without capsizing the small craft, which made me a bit more confident. The father of the team pushed me off and I started to row.

Kayaking never interested me. I wasn’t adverse to it, per se, but it also didn’t look all that fun. Mostly it looked like a lot of work.IMG_20150604_143510856_edited-1

And these old bones aren’t used to work. Sitting at a computer and typing all day doesn’t exactly keep the muscles in prime form. At this point, I was glad my body didn’t rebel riding a bike down to the river’s edge (even though it was mostly flat with a slight downgrade).

As I paddled around in a few circles to see how stable the kayak was, and how sharply I could turn, I realized just how easy it was. After ten minutes in the calm water, and finding a rhythm in paddling, I was surprised how relaxing it was.

With the cloudy skies, little wind and mild temperature (about 70 degrees Fahrenheit), we couldn’t have asked for a better day for kayaking. I even managed to keep up with everyone who had obviously kayaked more than me (which wasn’t saying much since this was my first time).

After about an hour paddling up and down the Heart River, I understood the allure of it. How can something that took physical effort (although well within reason) could be so relaxing? Kayaking manages, and is something I hope to do again. Having traipsed many times on the river in a speed boat, fishing boat and pontoon, floating on a kayak makes a person feel closer and almost a part of the river itself. I highly recommend it.

Even (or especially) if you’re an old lady like me.

Surprise, surprise, surprise

If anyone knows where that line came from, it only proves how old you are.

Truthfully (as if I lie to my own blog), I am a bit surprised. For the last several months, I’ve felt God pulling me to research publishers and agents and get my query letter written.

I fought him a bit, like I always do. Part of it was lack of confidence. I haven’t written anything in a while (legal descriptions for my job not included), and I feel woefully out of practice.

Nevertheless, I finally gave in to God’s urgings and spent a few days researching.

In a word: Ugh. My novel is not in a genre largely accepted by CBA or ABA publishers. That’s the challenge I accepted when writing a Christian Science Fiction book; I knew it would be a hard sell from the beginning.

Still, I found one agent and one publisher possibility. Not a lot, but it’s better than nothing. I admit to teeth-gritting-until-I-got-a-headache frustration when researching publishers/agents and so many said “no science fiction.”

It’s enough to make a person throw up the hands and go Indie.

I have thought long and hard about the possibility. After all, I did publish “A Reason to Hope” through Amazon. Truth is, I simply don’t want to spend so much money and time doing it all myself.

The next step was to tackle the query letter — my one true writing fear. How does one boil a book down to a single page and make it sound interesting? After all, it took me almost five years just to come up with a title that I thought sounded good.

Because work was slow today, and it being a Friday, I decided to go home early and attempt writing a query letter. Less than an hour later, it was done, and to be quite honest, I like how it turned out.

Part of it was I let go. I shut out the internal editor and those horrific voices pounding at the back of my head telling me what a talentless fraud I am.

A little prayer helped, too.

That’s the awesome thing about God. Sometimes it takes but a small step toward him and his goal for us, and he smooths out the trail ahead.

A little praise is in order.

The work is not done, though. Not only does the agent I’m submitting to first require a query letter and synopsis, but a chapter-by-chapter outline. That shouldn’t take but a few days. Once it’s written I will set it aside for a while. A fresh eye always results in finding sometimes glaring mistakes.

Then comes the most difficult part: sending it off.

Once that’s done, it’s out of my hands and success or failure depends how well I sell my book through the . . .

Don’t you hate it when you forget the absolute perfect word? I just did that!

Dang it.

Anyway, to get back on track . . .

It’s the simple act of placing 26 letters in the right order that will either pique their interest and ask for more or they will send a terse email saying, “Thanks but no thanks.”

But one cannot succeed without first taking risks.

Branding is a Very Bad Thing

Just ask a cow.

Yet that’s what writers are required to do if they want to sell their books. Develop a brand, something that sets them apart from every other writer out there. Something (or things) that will attract potential readers and keep them coming back for more.

It’s a horrible thing to ask (demand) of a person who — in general — is anti-social by nature. It’s not enough to merely write, find a publisher, and write some more. Now we have to create a Brand before we even hook an interested publisher.

I recently watched a show entitled “Genius Minds” on the Science Channel about an autistic lady named Temple Grandin. Since a little girl, she always had an affinity for animals. She understood them, because, like her, they have no grasp of abstract concepts. She empathized with the cows especially when they were herded into the chutes to be branded. They bounced around in terror, potentially injuring themselves and others, until the headgate closed on them. They immediately calmed down. When she was in college , she created something similar for herself, which she used when feeling overwhelmed or out of sorts. She called it the “hug machine.” It was so successful for her, that it’s now used for other autistics to help keep them calm.

What does that have to do with branding? Other than the fact they’re used to brand cows?

Because I’m not a cow. I’m not like Temple Grandin where I would find something like that comforting. I see it as constraining. I don’t want to be branded, to be known as one thing and one thing only.  I’ve seen other authors who’ve gone from one brand (or genre) to another and it either failed dismally or it took years for it to catch, because the author had to find a whole new set of readers.

Admittedly, the fight against branding is an excuse. I keep asking, “What do I have to offer that will keep them interested enough that they will buy my product without feeling pressured to buy it?”

Everything I’ve learned I’ve learned from others. I know a lot , but I’m not an expert at much — unless you want to know how to survey land. Even then, there are thousands more who know more than I do. There’s nothing unique I have to offer except my stories.  Unfortunately, that’s not enough anymore. I have to sell myself.

*shudder*

But it is what it is. As much as I might hate it, it has to be done. My reticence, fear and lack of confidence has more to do with not knowing how to even start marketing. At Barnes and Noble the other day, I spotted “Guerrilla Marketing for Writers.”  I’m only 20 pages into it, and I’m still feeling overwhelmed. I will continue to slog ahead, however, because the desire to publish is greater than my fear of putting myself out there. I will simply have to fight my anti-social tendencies.

Hopefully getting branded won’t hurt too much. Once I figure out what it will look like, that is.