It’s Criminal

Are you wondering what I was doing during my six months of blog silence? Well, I’ll tell you:  among other things, I was relocating from one Ohio city to another.

Some of the activities surrounding that moving event (pun intended) included sitting around at the new place waiting for contractors to show up and do their thing. I didn’t mind that, because it gave me an excuse to read.

Ordinarily, I feel guilty if I read in the middle of the day; something in the back of my mind tells me that’s something you should only do when your daily work is done. The problem is that by then, I’m too tired to read without falling asleep. That’s why I don’t do as much reading as I’d like. (Sadly, as my husband could tell you after we hauled all my books from one home to another, I have more than I can get through in my lifetime. And that’s just the bulky print books, not counting my Kindle.)

Be that as it may, as I sat in a camp chair in my empty living room, I entertained myself with an anthology of old crime novels from the 30s and 40s entitled… wait for it… Crime Novels. It contains the following stories:

  • The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain
  • They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy
  • Thieves Like Us by Edward Anderson
  • The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing
  • Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham
  • I Married a Dead Man by Cornell Woolrich

You might recognize the first two titles from the movies that are based on them. There’s also an old 1950 movie adapted from the novel I Married a Dead Man, called No Man of Her Own.

I’ve never seen any of the movies, but I found all the novels to be engrossing reads. I liked Nightmare Alley the least, but all in all thought it a good addition to the collection. All the stories are a little dated, but skillfully written.

Some general thoughts went through my mind as I read them, and that’s what I’m here to talk about today.

All these stories involve a crime or crimes, deception, or other forbidden act, and are told from the point of view of the people who committed them. Probably because these were written in a time when society held clearly-delineated and generally-agreed-upon standards of right and wrong, things didn’t end well for these protagonists.

A couple of them died at the end. One was charged with murder and presumably executed after the story closed. One character ended up a circus geek—and if you’re not familiar with what that was, here’s a detailed explanation. (Note that the article credits the novel in question with popularizing the term). And one character was condemned by circumstances to live the rest of her life emotionally estranged from the man she loved. The only exception to this pattern of “just deserts” endings was The Big Clock, at the end of which the reader is left with the impression that although the erring protagonist escaped this time, he knew his lifestyle would catch up with him eventually.

Popular real-life outlaws Bonnie and Clyde

This all got me to wondering: Why are we so fascinated with criminals and crime? Is it because we harbor these tendencies ourselves? Do most people want to be wild, but feel restrained by the risks and/or a sense of morality? Is that why we like to live the outlaw life vicariously?

Or do we enjoy these stories because they make us feel superior, thinking, “I’d  never do anything like that”? Does looking down on others—even fictional others—give us an inflated sense of worth?

Why do all these characters get their comeuppance in the end? Did the authors write these as cautionary tales, intending to warn people away from the behaviors portrayed? Did they merely want to titillate the reader, but because of social mores felt they shouldn’t let the criminals come out on top?

I don’t know. What do you think?

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The Porch Light is On

I recently started drafting a post on the subject of “coming home.” It was appropriate, considering that’s the title of the new novella collection in which one of my stories appears with six others.

Each story takes place in a different location (Texas, West Virginia, an island in Lake Superior off the coast of Wisconsin, Indiana, Georgia, one of the Carolinas [sorry, Kimberli, but I don’t remember which one!]*, and Ohio) all with the unifying theme being tiny houses. I don’t usually write contemporary fiction, but it’s been fun working with my friends on this project, and I enjoyed writing the story, which I set in the community where Craig and I lived for 30 years.

*[Note: Kimberli just contacted me to say: “This is one of the few stories I’ve written that doesn’t take place in the Carolinas. Like Linda’s, mine is set in Texas, only North Central Texas where it’s hot and dry and the town has been suffering a long drought. That part was based on an actual event. It was so dry in the real town my fictional town is based on, they pleaded with people to pray for rain. In the story, they got it. In buckets.” Sorry I mis-remembered, Kimberli, and thanks for the correction!]

And now, back to our regularly-scheduled broadcast:
Another reason “coming home” is so appropriate is because we recently moved, and when I return to this place after being away, I don’t quite feel like I’m “home.” This kind of surprises me, because when we moved to Maryland in 2013, my husband and I both immediately felt like our new house was home. Why don’t I now? I’m not sure, but it’s different this time.

Here’s a portion of the post I started drafting earlier but never finished:

Coming Home is the title of the novella collection a group of us recently published. In a way, it’s also the theme of my contribution to the book, though it was someone else who came up with the title.

It’s also what I felt like this past Wednesday when I went back for visit to the area of New Philadelphia, OH. That’s where my husband and I lived for 30 years. All four of our kids grew up there, graduated from high school in the area, and were launched into the world from that home base.

When driving back to T-County this past week, the closer I got, the more I found myself anticipating my arrival there. I felt like I was going home.

I dropped off copies of the book at both the New Philadelphia and Dover public libraries. I also delivered several copies to Dayspring Christian Bookstore, where they are now available for sale. I went to Swiss Village Bulk Foods and Sugar Valley Meats in Sugarcreek. I had lunch at my cousin’s house. The whole time, I drove around with a smile on my face.

I don’t ever expect to live there again, but it sure is nice to visit.

I got that far and then couldn’t think what else to say, so I put it aside. Until now.

This morning as I read in the Gospel of John, I got to the first verse in chapter 14 and pulled up short.

I’ll share that with you in a minute, but first, let me fill you in on something that happens in my novella. The main character has been going through a very difficult time. Her marriage has fallen apart, she’s moved out of her long-time home, she’s left her career, and is trying to start over in the community where she lived when she was a young girl. Subconsciously, I suppose, she hopes to recapture something of the hope and happiness of her youth. But she can’t find it, because those days are gone. She prays, but can’t seem to feel the connection with God she once did. She feels lonely and adrift.

At one point in the story, she’s out walking the dog after dark and gets a little scare. She looks toward her tiny house, and the lights beckon to her to come back to safety. As she and the dog move into the protective glow of the house’s deck light, she asks herself, “Stepping into the light of God can’t be as simple as walking back to the house, can it?”

That analogy came back to mind when I contemplated John 14:1. Here are the thoughts I recorded in my journal. (Please forgive my long, rambling sentences; I write these notes only for myself, not for publication!):

What the disciples were about to face—they didn’t know it yet, but Jesus did—was a horror of unprecedented magnitude. They were about to see the long-awaited Messiah, whom they knew to be God in the flesh, whom they had seen exercise supernatural power over everything (sin, death, disease, demons, storm winds, human authorities, physical laws), and in whom God would fulfill all His glorious promises to Israel—this One in whom they had willingly placed their lives, their hope, their faith—would soon be arrested like a common criminal and taken away, subjected to unjust trial, physical torture, and the most horrific execution mankind had ever devised, all without lifting a finger or a word to defend himself. It was more appalling than can possibly be described. And on the eve of this, Jesus tells them, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.”

There is no difficulty, no trauma, no heartache we can possibly face in this world that falls outside that assurance: Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in Jesus.

Jesus knows what we’re going through; this is not a trite platitude. He knows full well, for he’s experienced it. Indeed, he goes through it with us. When we know Jesus, we know the way through it, because HE is the way (vv. 5-6).

I tried to depict this through my story, but John said it better. Jesus is the Light (John 1:1-5 and 8:12) that draws us to God. When we hear things bump in the night, when we see disturbing shadows in the darkness around us, when we’re filled with fear—and indeed, there are plenty of legitimately scary things in this world!—we can come into the Light. He’s always near.

This is not to minimize the dangers. Our troubles and fears may be horribly real, but they are not eternal; they’re not all there is. When we walk in Christ’s light, we can see the end of them.

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Back to Faith

P1030227I’m back to the topic of faith, which I began last month and continued with the second installment a couple weeks ago. I hope to wrap it up today, because it was never my intention to start a series; all this started about with some meandering thoughts about a magazine article.

The first post was a general observation about faith and human nature. In the second, I pointed out that the fervency of our faith is less important than the object of it.

I published the second post late in the evening and then went to bed, but it occurred to me after I laid down that the article might need some clarification. So that’s what I’m going to attempt today.

The story I told in Part II of this accidental series was an actual event, related as accurately as I recall it. I don’t know if either of the men were Christians, but it sticks in the back of my mind that at least one of them was, or at least, he was an active member of a church. In any case, however, a reasonable person might dispute the conclusion I drew. One might wonder, if one or both men’s faith was in Christ, didn’t God let them down by allowing such a terrible thing to happen? Even if neither of them were believers, we all know people who love the Lord but bad things happen to them anyway. Isn’t our faith misplaced in a situation like that? What good does faith in Christ do when it doesn’t protect us from disaster?

I consider these questions legitimate, and I regretted not thinking to address them last time until after genieLampHeartI’d published the post.

By way of answering now, let me simplistically point out that God is not a genie. The Christian faith is not about saying some magic words ending with, “In Jesus’s name, Amen” and expecting God to do our bidding.

God is God. That means He does what He will.

Yes, He considers what we want, and He loves it when we talk to Him and pour out our hopes, fear, and dreams. Very often, when we make a request, He’s happy to give us what we ask for. But one of the biggest benefits of prayer is not in getting Him to do our bidding, but in aligning our wills to His. The more we pray, the more we change. No amount of prayer can change Him to suit us.

The Bible is full of examples of this. (So is the whole history of the world, but for now, I’ll limit the discussion to what we see in the scriptures.) One of the most poignant is found in John 11. Jesus’s dear friend Lazarus was deathly ill, and Lazarus’s sisters sent a servant to Jesus and asked Him to come to heal him. (In other words, they prayed to Him.) But instead of coming to the rescue, Jesus stayed where he was for a few more days. He didn’t go until Lazarus was already dead and buried.

But He loved Lazarus and his sisters! They were suffering, and He could have helped them, but He didn’t! What’s up with that?

He’s God. He accomplishes His purposes, not ours.

But the most powerful example, of course, is the humiliation and agony Jesus went through Himself. He could have stopped that nightmare at any time. But instead, despite His sweat-soaked prayers to the Father to allow “this cup to pass from me,” He allowed this, the world’s most monumental travesty of justice, to be carried out to its horrifying completion. Because God is God.

To question the love — or power — or existence — of God because bad things happen is to assume we know better than He. That every painful thing is bad, and everything we like is good. That we can judge God by our standard.

file0001864884953God is not Santa Claus. Believing in Him doesn’t mean being good and going to church, or being nice so He’ll give us nice things and keep us from evil.

Faith in God means trusting Him even when what’s going on makes no sense at all. It means believing what He says whether or not we understand it. Looking at things from His eternal perspective rather than from our limited, earthbound viewpoint.

I have faith in my car’s brakes to stop me. I have faith in the roof of my house to protect me and the contents from bad weather. I have faith in my marriage of almost 39 years. But faith in God trumps all that.

Despite my confidence, I know brakes fail, buildings fall apart, and marriages end. God won’t allow any of those things to happen unless and until it suits His perfect purposes. But when something horrific does happen, I’ll know He’s got everything under control, just as He did when Lazarus died. Just as He did when Jesus stood before Pilate.

It goes against our human nature to let go and trust–even, as the article in Wired magazine stated (in part I of this series), when confronted with evidence of our own inferiority.

It’s especially hard when things fall apart. We want to take matters into our own hands. But trusting myself more than the eternal, omniscient, omnipotent God is just plain foolishness.

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How is Trusting Robots Like Trusting God?

Once upon a time (circa AD 2006), I began subscribing to Wired magazine. In case you’re not familiar with it, its target audience is young, urban techy types with money and a humanistic world view.

Since those traits describe the opposite of me, it’s surprising that I enjoyed the magazine. What’s even more unexpected is that I enjoyed it for eight years and only allowed my subscription to expire this month. Moreover, I read 80 to 90% of every issue. I didn’t always share the writer’s perspective, but the content was informative and often intriguing.

file0001474680505Take, for instance, the one in the June issue about trusting robots.

I’m fairly neutral on the topic of artificial intelligence. That is to say, I’m not the sort who can’t wait to have the latest new gizmo, but I’m not afraid of technology taking over the world, either. Robotics are here to stay, and I find that fact more interesting than intimidating.

But did you notice this part of the article? Speaking of the various studies in which researchers found humans reluctant to put their entire faith in artificial intelligence:

In another study, 81 percent of volunteers chose to abandon a program they were told could predict whether camouflaged soldiers were hidden in photographs, even after feedback revealed that they were making far more mistakes than the computer. The reason? In the researchers’ words, nearly a quarter of participants “justified their disuse by stating they did not trust the automated aid as much as they trusted themselves.” In other words, even when confronted with evidence of our own inferiority, we resist a robot’s help.

What struck me here is the parallel between our unwillingness to trust machines even when we ourselves make more mistakes than the computer, and our unwillingness to trust God. Note how the writer puts it: “…even when confronted with evidence of our own inferiority.”

No, I’m not saying computers are like God. Not even a little bit. I’m only pointing out that our reluctance to trust machines and our unwillingness to fully trust God are similar symptoms of the same aspect of human nature.

If there’s a scientific or theological term for that penchant of ours, I don’t know what it is. But I do know that it can serve us in good stead in ways but cause our downfall in others.

I’m not sure it’s advantageous of us to trust artificial intelligence. I suppose in certain applications, it is. But it’s definitely to our advantage to admit we’re inferior to our Creator and trust Him completely — in every application. Our refusal to do so is not illogical, but predictably human (as these studies demonstrate).


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Publication Primer: 15 Points to Ponder

You can’t hang out in writerly circles more than a minute or two without hearing the topic file0001336424447of traditional publication v. self-publication discussed. It’s big; very big. And for a very good reason.

Used to be, it was a matter of pride, vanity (hence the old moniker “vanity press”), and bucks: if you wanted to see your name in print and had the money to see it happen, you paid someone to publish your book. You could be pretty sure no one would ever buy it, and it was also a good bet that if anyone ever did, they’d be sorry. The quality was notoriously bad, from the printing to the binding and usually the writing itself (because if it was worth anything, a traditional publisher would have eventually accepted it), and the cost was notoriously high. The companies producing those vanity books seldom offered editing services, and if they did, their input was minimal. I’ve heard of books being produced with missing pages, upside-down pages, and other glaring errors, with the author having to pay for a re-print if he wanted them corrected. Not good.

file6681269982727Traditional publication is usually defined as publication through a company that pays you to publish your book rather than the other way around. In recent years, traditional presses have been going under at an alarming rate, and at the same time, with the advent of personal computers and easy-to-use writing software, authors are churning out manuscripts like never before. The result is a raging flood of authors seeking publication in a market that’s only equipped to handle a trickle. Not good.

Enter Amazon. On one hand, we might blame this Internet behemoth for the publishing world’s bleak state, as its innovations have changed the face of the industry forever. But it must also be acknowledged that this user-friendly site has made it possible for anyone with a moderate amount of computer savvy to produce a good quality book—print, e-book, or both—for NO INVESTMENT WHATSOEVER. And to sell it online to a virtually unlimited number of buyers worldwide, paying Amazon only a small sales commission for each book sold.

Sounds like a fantasy, doesn’t it? Well, it’s not. Producing a book through CreateSpace, the publishing division of Amazon, is a bit more difficult than waving a magic wand and chanting a spell. But it’s not only possible in the real world, but practical, which is why I’m gearing up to do it this year. Twice.

A writer friend was recently going through the Valley of Despond we all go through uponfile00055331537 having our manuscript rejected by our publisher of choice. I’ve read the book she submitted, and it’s a good one; I wouldn’t say that if it weren’t true. From the acquisition editor’s comments, it was apparent (s)he didn’t “get” the story. Since it’s nothing unusual or complicated, the editor was probably too hurried to take the time to see what it was all about.  (See my statement above about the glut of authors vying for the small number of traditional publishing slots.) Understanding that, though, doesn’t make the rejection hurt any less.

I have a great deal more experience trying to get published than succeeding at it. But I’ve been traveling through the writing world long enough and rubbing shoulders with enough successful authors to have learned a few things.  Based on that experience, I offered my friend some words of wisdom. Okay, maybe the words aren’t all that wise, but I thought I’d share them with you all here on Ys Words anyway. There’s nothing new or startling in the list below, but here’s more or less what I told her:

1 – Everyone has his own ideas of what’s good, what he likes, what he doesn’t like. Just because someone in high places doesn’t happen to like your story, that doesn’t mean it’s not good.

2 – Every writer thinks she’s the cat’s pajamas, that her writing is worthwhile and meaningful, and if someone doesn’t understand it, they’re missing the boat. Even if her writing truly stinks.

3 – No writer is in a good position to judge his own writing honestly. See above.

4 – The writing professionals see a lot of garbage and can recognize quality when they see it; if they find fault in it, chances are it’s not very good.

5 – The writing professionals see a lot of garbage, and every time they see a proposal, they expect it to be more of the same. They take a quick look, and if nothing pops out as being exceptional, they make a snap judgment as to the whole thing.

6 – At one point, after a certain number of rejections, every good writer thinks he’s been kidding himself and can’t really write after all. He’s wrong.

7 – At one point, after a certain number of rejections, every lousy writer thinks he’s been kidding himself and can’t really write after all. He’s right.

8 – Remember #s 2 and 3 above? We all need outside feedback from people who know something, not just people who know and love us.

9 – Caveat to the above: see Point #1. Don’t take anyone’s opinion too seriously; nobody’s God but God.

10 – The one who quits is finished. There will be no more chances for the writer who won’t take them.

11 – Being traditionally published is better than self-publishing. Anyone can self-publish, but being traditionally published is validation that you actually deserve to be published.

12 – Self-publishing is better because you have complete control. You can write what’s on your heart in your own unique style and not worry about having to please a publisher. Moreover, instead of getting a small royalty from the publisher, you keep the bulk of the earnings and give a small royalty to CreateSpace.

13 – Traditionally published books are more prestigious and are overall better quality than self-published works (except for the self-published books that are better quality than some of the traditionally-published ones).

14 – Traditional publication is a great learning experience. But now that it’s becoming easier and more profitable, self-publishing is a good option for those books that are not quite mainstream.

I didn’t tell her this next one, because she’s been around the block enough that she didn’t need me to. However, I’ll add one more point for these purposes:

15 – Generally speaking, writing is not a money-making proposition no matter how you do it. In both cases, the hardest part is selling the book once it’s produced. In both cases, the author who makes millions at it is the exception, not the rule. Write only because you can’t not write, not because you need the income.

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Taking Sides

Cretaceous ClayI’ve been making good progress on my WIP this week, and that makes me happy! The last chapter of my first draft draws near at long last, and I’m experiencing that burst of energy that comes when the finish line is in sight.

But I thought I’d pause for a moment and whip out a quick blog post. I ran across something interesting this morning in an e-book I’ve been reading and wanted to share it before I lose the note I jotted it on.

The book is has the interesting title of Cretaceous Clay and the Black Dwarf. Just released this spring, it’s written by a Twitter friend I met a few months ago, Dana Allan Knight. And it’s a little hard to describe.

Kind of a mix between the Jetsons and Sherlock Holmes (except the detective wears a trench coat and fedora like Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer) with some elves, dwarves, and biotic creations thrown in, along with a little magic and supernatural intrigue. I can’t decide if it’s intended for a Young Adult audience, but it’s clean, containing no sex, graphic violence, or profanity.

I also can’t decide if I like it. I enjoy certain aspects of it, but the writing isn’t all that great and I keep editing it mentally, which tends to distract me from the story.

Amazon has it listed under “religious fiction,” and I’m not sure of that, either. It does touch on some important themes, though I wouldn’t call any of it religious. This morning, however, I ran across a sentence that seemed to describe solid Christian doctrine—but I’m not at all sure the author Screen shot 2013-05-25 at 5.11.07 PMhad anything in mind beyond the immediate, and inconsequential, context. The sentence hit me between the eyes, though, so I hopped up, grabbed a pencil and piece of scrap paper, and wrote it down.

Here’s the setting: the protagonist (Clay) has opened his home to some of his friends who are temporarily displaced. The guests included two little children, Hope and Faith, along with their mother. The girls shared a bed with another guest, Clay’s fiancé, Jasmine, and they kept her up much of the night with their thrashing around. As Jasmine (who’s eager to marry Clay and have a dozen children of her own) described how they couldn’t lie still, she said, “Faith forced me to change sides, but it was a great night.”

All the statement meant, of course, was that the girl kept moving onto Jasmine’s side of the bed so she had to get up and go to the other side; and despite all the interruptions to her sleep, she had fun sharing the bed with the little ones. But—probably due to the frame of mind I was in as I read—I saw it as an allegory. That is, when we come to Christ in faith, he takes us out of the devil’s domain and places us in God’s kingdom; our faith requires us to change sides.

How about the other half of the sentence? Again, I’m sure I manufactured this subtext because of my frame of mind. But it made me think of the scriptural truth alluded to in 1 Thessalonians 5:1-8 and elsewhere, that the time we currently live in is, spiritually speaking, nighttime. Of course we look forward to the time when the Sun of righteousness will rise with healing in his wings (Malachi 4:1-2), but while it’s still night, we can rejoice in Him. Dark though it may be, we can have a great night.Screen shot 2013-05-25 at 5.11.41 PM

Until I ran across this statement more than halfway into the book, I’d thought the whole story rather silly. Maybe it is all rather silly, and perhaps I just imagined the awesomeness. But I’ll be looking for other awesome things to jump out and grab me as I continue.

Have a great night.

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