Tuesday, October 29, 2013

What Makes You Come Alive? (Podcast #8)

or https://soundcloud.com/hopeclark/what-makes-you-come-alive

Last week, a wee small voice emailed me saying she found herself to be scared of writing her first book. "I am afraid of failing," she said, "of people not liking my book, and of my story being too outrageous. How do I get myself out of this predicament?" That was the entire email, and it made me wonder how many other people are out there feeling this way.

We already know there are tons of folks slapping words on paper and publishing them, words that aren't ready for release. But what about those who are not that bold. Their stories are locked behind a fear that once those words are released, they'll be beaten up, bruised and run over.

I jump into tough love on these types of questions. What you do is set a time each and every day and report to work. You write. Writers don't write thinking about what other people will say. They write because they have stories to tell. The more they write, the better they get. Each word is one word closer to being successful. But success is subjective, so what I think is successful isn't what you think is successful.

Kurt Vonnegut, however, said it so well in a letter to Xavier High School in 2006. He was advising high schoolers in a letter after declining to come speak because of his age. In his brief but articulate and impacting letter, he said:

"Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what's inside you, to make your soul grow."

It's exciting if you stop and think about it. Writing helps you discover yourself. Imagine what lies hidden deep inside because you are afraid to write?

That's like being afraid to leave the house or try to sing a tune. Like not cooking a recipe or running a race. Not learning math or not trying to swim faster. All because you are afraid to see how well you can do.

Don't you want to know who you are?

Don't you want to know how broad your mind can reach?

But by working diligently at something, digging inside yourself to "find out what's inside you", you wind up learning how to be unique. After all, nobody is like you. And when it comes to writing, in order to stand out from the crowd, your writing has to be unique. And being unique means that someone out there won't like what you produced, because it's not what they are accustomed to, or what they expected.

You can't be good without being unique. So...there you go. You ultimately have to be a failure in someone's eyes to be a success in someone else's because we sure don't all think alike! Gracious, look at all the opinions out there. It's impossible for all of us to be on the same wavelength. Therefore, being outrageous is often part of the package as you define yourself and grow.

Dare to be different...or don't bother. It's a black and white issue here. You write or you don't, and to determine what you write, you delve inside your soul.

Be grateful for the voices. Be happy when someone comments on your work. Whether it's good or bad is a plus for you. It's feedback, and from that feedback, you learn more about your own writing. You start "becoming."

You also learn to take a stand once you recognize your writing strengths. You start sifting through the remarks, gleaning what you want from the criticism, not shying away from ALL criticism. The worst thing for a writer is when nobody bothers to give you feedback.

Eventually, however, when you publish a story, or start a blog, or present to a group, frankly anything you do in the public's eye, someone will walk away. Sometimes several will. Sometimes many. For a second it will stun you, then sting a little bit. You'll wonder what you did wrong, and rehash in your head what you could have done differently.

Our natural instinct is to identify cause and effect. What happens to cause a certain reaction? And when we are involved, we gravitate to what WE did. Were WE the cause?

We seek hard to see if we are involved for several reasons:

1) We don't want to be the guilty party.
2) We want to be proactive in correcting whatever is amiss.
3) We want to prevent it from happening again.
4) We want to make others' lives better.
5) We want to be successful.

Some of us avoid publishing, blogging and presenting so we don't have to deal with the above. Why?

1) We don't want to feel guilty.
2) We don't want to have to fix things.
3) We don't want it happening in the first place, much less a second time.
4) We don't want to get involved in strangers' lives.
5) We aren't sure what success is, much less how to handle it.

I think these reasons are why so many stop in place, frozen by what might happen, or what they might cause.

Causing nothing always leads to affecting nothing. If you do nothing, you cause nothing, and nothing happens.

Then we wonder why our stories don't sell. That means that if you are writing stories and publishing (causing), and putting them out there (still causing), you will create something (success/ opinion/ reviews/ buzz). The reality of it is that somebody will not like what you do.

You want feedback. You lie if you say you don't. Who creates and never wonders if someone would like it? Writers are hungry for reaction to what they do. But that means negative reactions as well as positive.

Embrace the feedback, regardless its name. It means someone was touched enough to push back. After one of my editorials about self-publishing via vanity presses, I had a record number of unsubscribes in one day: 36. Not much, you might say, considering thousands read the newsletter. But I watch such things, to keep a finder on the pulse of what I'm doing.

I rank that response as quite successful. My story mattered enough to entice a response. I got feedback! Those folks read my point and it struck them hard enough to make them leave. That means I made an impact. I hope they tell their friends, and I can best hope that over time my words about vanity publishing will sink in deep enough . . . and their writing lives will be much better. I call that a very productive day.

Dare to live. Writing might be what makes you come alive, what makes you start becoming as Mr. Vonnegut would say.

I have the following quote over my computer, and I read it almost daily as a reminder of why I do what I do:

Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go and do that because what the world needs is people who have come alive. ~Howard Thurman, African American author, philosopher, theologian, educator and leader.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Opposite of Living is, Guess What? (Podcast #7)

Or https://soundcloud.com/hopeclark/the-opposite-of-living-is

Ever seen someone successful and caught yourself wishing your life had turned out like that? What if's play out in your head, as if someone controlled your life like a string puppet, and you just went along for the dance. I know you do. I do it all the time, then pinch myself for falling into that excuse- trap of thinking I have no control over how I turn out.

I usually blog toward the interest of writers, but this message works for all parties. We all too often sabotage ourselves, thinking it's for our own good, when in actuality, we're making matters worse. Let's look at how to live.

Face Your Fear

Name something you're afraid of, or a situation that makes you anxious. Your first instinct is to dodge the matter altogether and remain in your comfort zone. Instead, you are feeding your fear, giving it credence. You never overcome the issue, and it grows to even bigger proportions.

For instance, when I'm invited to speak at a conference, my initial, gut reaction is to decline. That's because the idea of leaving my seclusion on the lake to dive into a sea of people, maybe hundreds of them, is like rubbing sandpaper on skin to me. But if the offer is a good one, compensating me appropriately or offering wonderful networking opportunity, I make myself accept. I'm better at these events than I used to be, and people scoff when they hear I'm introverted, but by facing my fear several times a year, I embrace it and become better at coping. Afterwards I'm on Cloud Nine, because I invariably walk away with a contact, a freelance offer, or new readers for my work.

Embrace a fear. Dare yourself. You will come out on the other side so proud of how you did . . . and how you grew.

Quit creating obstacles

We create most of the obstacles in our lives. We hate phone calls because they interrupt us. We hate social media because it erodes our day. We don't like exercising because it hurts, or it's inconvenient, or we have to look at the buff and steel-abs people working out beside us, making us depressed. We don't complete that novel because we're afraid of criticism.

I can't, because...I hate it, because...I don't want to, because...

You are giving names to obstacles, building mountains in your own way. I recently received a series of phone calls while in the midst of Chapter 24 of a WIP. The interruptions drove me to frustration, and I almost blamed people for calling when in reality they couldn't know that I was deep into an argument between two characters. Instead, I decided not to take calls for two hours. Obstacle gone.

I make excuses for my backside spreading while I'm writing. Then I start justifying the hours at the keyboard, claiming it's part of the package of being a writer. Of course, my inner self knows better, and the cycle goes round and round. So instead, I pick up the dog's leash and go for a walk, using the time to massage a plot point or develop a character. Obstacle gone. Several obstacles, as a matter of fact.

See how in avoiding the obstacle game we create opportunity and actually satisfy our desires?

Embrace the uncomfortable

We all have comfort zones, and it's a matter of beating the laws of inertia to step outside of them. Inertia is the resistance of an object to change in its motion, to include a change in direction. For instance, when we like Facebook one way, and they change the rules or design, we fuss about adapting. Just  look at what happens with Windows puts out a new operating system. Have you embraced Windows 8? Not me, because I enjoy Windows 7. It's much easier to sit in a chair than jog a mile. The list goes on.

David Krueger, MD is an Executive Mentor Coach, CEO of MentorPath and well-published author guiding individuals in their goals to live life to its fullest. He states, "Comfortable is not a place you begin, it’s a place at which you can arrive" in his blog post Invert Wisdom for Writers. Frankly, his advice prompted me to write this post.

You know how we con ourselves into not trying hard? For instance, running. We walk slowly, maybe longer than we need to, saying we don't want to hurt something, or the track is uneven, or we are a certain age, or we don't want to get a shin-splint. So we just stroll. Each person has limitations, but all too often we justify stopping or slowing or not going running at all because of the discomfort we'll cause ourselves. But we don't improve without that discomfort. That uncomfortable feeling is a sign of improvement.

Some people are afraid to cut their hair. Who has the guts to waltz in and ask a stylist to decide how their hair ought to be cut? The funny part of this fear is hair grows back. Even if you hate it, six weeks later, it's grown back. The new style might give you pep and enhance your image. But you never know until you dare to let somebody whack on it, trusting their judgment.

Writing is the same. If it's easy, it's not good. I'm asked often in emails to review someone's writing and tell them if it's good or not. Many of them are writing down stories, usually avoiding the hard knocks path of being rejected, not studying how-to advice, not accepting criticism from a peer group, or not reading successfully published material to dissect it for its value. Instead, they want me to nicely tell them. It has to be painful to improve. We have to see where we fall short, no, we have to WANT to hunt for our writing flaws, because finding them puts us one step closer to being better.

Embrace the unknown

I love this quote from Dr. Kueger's article: "You can tiptoe through life very carefully and arrive safely at death."

What a wake-up quote!

Haven't traveled to a foreign country because you're afraid of the language and cultural differences? Do it, or you'll regret not having done it later.

Haven't changed jobs for fear of leaving the one you are comfortable in . . . though you hate getting up and reporting to work? Think of how exciting it would be to try something new? How much happier would you be in a job you love? And if you don't like the new job? You keep looking.

Haven't tried to traditionally publish because you're afraid of what publishers and agents will say about you? Give it a serious go. Frankly, I profess that most people self-publish due to a control issue. They fear not having all the say-so in their work, when in truth they don't have enough knowledge and experience in marketing, publishing, and design to be exercising all that say-so. It's why ninety percent of self-pubbed books languish in obscurity.

Don't know how to do something? Go for the gusto and learn how. Whether it's sky-diving or fly-fishing, horseback riding or watercolor painting, baking a quiche or mastering crème brulee, study it intently and make it happen.

Don't self-publish until you understand the breadth and depth of all types of publishing, so you can walk the walk and talk the talk. Only then can you make an informed decision. Voila, it's also less painful.

You envy people who dare to reach out and grow.

What do you know well? Then blog about it. Write about it. Or if you do not write, then capitalize on it, becoming good at it for your own personal satisfaction. If you want to learn something new, then accept it as a challenge, lower your shoulder, and plow into it, aiming to make yourself happy that you did. Now that's living.

Friday, October 11, 2013

E-I-E-I-O Spells Dead (Podcast #6)

OR - http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/114889141

          America was founded on agriculture. Tending the land and livestock to put food on the table is so patriotic . . . so laid back, hayseed, John Deere Americana. Farmsteads where the sun rises over waves of wheat and seas of corn, where a man fights to work at an honest living in tune with Mother Nature. A setting where chemicals dissolve your lungs, invisible gases asphyxiate, tools disembowel, machinery rips off limbs, and animals, given the right situation, eat you right down to the bone.

          Imagine all that opportunity in the hands of a diabolical killer.

          Most mystery readers imagine more mayhem in urban areas. In the country, however, murder can be hidden in a hog pen, under the lower forty acres, or amidst the livestock feed. So many natural causes and accidents with easy cover up, and fewer people to notice.

          And the methods can creep you out.

          A simple manure pit seems no more than a stinky collection of feces. You sure don’t want to know its many uses. It takes a pump or auger to syphon the crap to a truck for transport, and often these items clog or break. Someone tries to free up the flow. Fall into that pit and the collection of methane, hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide and ammonia will suck the life out of you in mere moments. Of course, if somebody pushes you . . .

Or using another angle, an opportune spark can make the fetid, slimy mess explode. What a shame how accidents can happen.

You know the old cliché of suicide in a closed garage with a car running? Same goes for any combustion engine in a barn or storage area, from a tractor to a generator. A carbon monoxide death is simple to accomplish, and easy to explain as a farming mishap.

Also, there’s no better place than a farm to find poisoning agents. Pesticides, fertilizer, fumigants, and chlorine. Breast cancer, leukemia, Parkinson’s Disease and more occur from chemicals like Atrazine. Benzene, a proven carcinogen, is readily found in many pesticides.  Even metal fumes from welding cause flu-like symptoms, with the more severe exposure to particular types of metals causing shock, collapse, convulsions, shortness of breath, yellow eyes, rash, vomiting, watery or bloody diarrhea or plummeting blood pressure. And these are symptoms related to accidental exposure. An author could enjoy depicting the damage that done by a deranged killer with such chemicals at his disposal, simply sitting in bags, buckets or drums for the taking.

Some farms have silos, where chopped silage (usually corn) is stored and fermented for livestock feed. Fermentation results in the release of natural gases, such as nitrogen and carbon dioxide. They are odorless and colorless and replace the oxygen, killing you much like the manure pits.

But in a particular type of conventional silo, nitrogen dioxide forms, smelling like bleach. It builds then dissipates, reaching its peak in three days, gone within two weeks. But the gas is heavier than air, so it flows down chutes and collects in lower areas around farm buildings, in corners, under feed bunks, even against the floor. What may seem only like a nasal irritant can result in a person dying in his sleep hours after exposure from fluid collection in his lungs. Your crazed antagonist can lock up your hero and open a chute to expose him to the poison, then let him loose to die hours later alone, the murderer nowhere around.

          And while we’re on silos, don’t forget the old suffocation by grain routine. An auger can get clogged, a person walk across a crusty bridge of grain in attempt to free the flow, and suddenly sink. Submersion takes less than twenty seconds. How convenient to drop your character into a pile of grain and watch him suffocate, telling authorities he slipped.

          Augers used in this farm work are corkscrew, twirly pieces of equipment that carry grain, feed, manure, dirt, or whatever is needed to be moved from one container to another. They can catch your clothing and rip your fingers, arms or legs off in a most gruesome, mangled manner. Some rate the auger as the most dangerous tool on a farm. A slight nudge at the right time can eat up an arm to the shoulder, snapping and grinding bone, ripping arteries, sending mutilated muscle along with the red-stained grain up the line, leaving the innocent party to bleed out. Law enforcement writes off the event as a horrendous abomination of fate.

          And for a most entertaining death, there’s murder by hog. If a hog is hungry enough, easily accomplished by not feeding him for a while, he becomes angry and aggressive. They are not sweet pink pigs. Hogs raised for slaughter run 200 to 300 pounds at maturity. Brood animals, particularly certain breeds, can reach 800 to 900 pounds. Make them cranky or threaten one of their piglets, and a person learns just how deadly their bite can be. Pigs are carnivores. They eat meat, regardless what bones it’s on.

          Old MacDonald might be quaint, but he dabbles in danger daily. Toss in a bad guy on a mission, and E-I-E-I-O means death in the most remarkable, despicable ways.

Carolina Slade, the protagonist in C. Hope Clark's Lowcountry Bribe, Tidewater Murder, and the upcoming Palmetto Poison (early 2014), understands that farming can be deadly, because she's solving crime amidst it all. www.chopeclark.com  

Friday, October 04, 2013

How Much of Your Story is Real? (Podcast #5)

OR - http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/114896444

As a guest in a podcast recently, I was asked these questions about my mysteries:

1) Are you Carolina Slade?
2) Is your husband Wayne Largo?
3) Is there a real Savvy Conroy?
4) How much of Lowcountry Bribe is real? (same for Tidewater Murder)
5) Were you ever drawn into compromising situations like your protagonist?
6) Are these real cases?
7) Did you ever investigate real murders?

For those of you who have not read my mysteries, Carolina Slade is the lady of the day in all the books, and she investigates criminal activity within the US Department of Agriculture's purview. Not your standard profession or setting. She has children, which makes  her life even messier. Messy is good in a mystery. The more the better.

But back to the interview. The host hit on many questions that attempted to delve into whether my books were nonfiction spun as fiction, and how much of my life was I entwining in these stories. She asked more than usual, as if trying to make me admit, "Yes, I'm Carolina Slade, and this is my life!"


Why? Because by people asking these questions, they've shown their hand. They are drawn into the details, setting, plot and characters. It all fit together well enough to feel realistic with the lines blurred between fact and fiction. They wonder how much I made up and how much I experienced, and they want to recognize the difference. When a line of questioning goes that far, I want to say, GOTCHA.

This particular interviewer tried harder than most. This is how I answered the questions:

1) Are you Carolina Slade? Carolina Slade and I have a lot in common and we've traveled similar paths. I was involved in a bribery investigation. It got a bit dangerous. It was stressful. It went awry. But there were no bodies.

2) Is your husband Wayne Largo? My husband says he is NOT Wayne Largo, but I modeled a few traits after his, whether he admits it or not. We DID meet on a bribery investigation. Yes, it was crazy. And I still love it when someone asks HIM for an autograph.

3) Is there a real Savvy Conroy? Savvy Conroy is alive and well, and this character is as close to being a real person than any of the characters in all the books. The real Savvy loves her character.

4) How much of Lowcountry Bribe is real? (same for Tidewater Murder) Some of Lowcountry Bribe is real. The bribery was that catalyst for the tale, but of course, the book takes the facts and spins them into the gold and silver threads of fiction that make stories so rich. Tidewater Murder, however, is pure, unadulterated fiction from the recesses of my little brain.

5) Were you ever drawn into compromising situations like your protagonist? I was faced with several bribes, but only reported one. Nope, I never accepted money, just sent them packing with a scolding . . . except for the one which pushed me to call in the badges, the Inspector General. Federal employees who deal with money, approvals and inspections of any kind will eventually be approached by both ill sorts and naïve individuals who don't realize they are crossing a line. We are taught when to say no, and when to call in the federal agents. Both can get messy. Nothing in life is black and white.

6) Are these real cases? Lowcountry Bribe involves a bribe, but the cases evolved in different directions. I did not want to use the exact case, plus the fiction case was much more wild and fun. I worked several cases, and my husband worked many cases. Between the two of us, we use real situations to glean ideas from which I make up cases for my  books.

7) Did you ever investigate real murders? No, I did not. My position, like Slade's, involved administrative investigations. When I sensed cases crossed the line into criminal activity, my orders were to stop and call in the real badges and guns. Death is uncommon in the Department of Agriculture, at least amongst its employees, though there are odd situations with clients, livestock, politicians and more!

When you can suspend people in your story, giving them enough realism to give them pause, give an arm-pumping YEAH and feel proud. You want that more than anything else in your efforts as a writer. So when someone asks you, "Where do you get your ideas," and you can find a way to say "I got the idea from something in my life," be prepared. If the line of questioning delves off on a tangent, with the questioner itching to know where the real and the fake meet, then you were successful.

Regardless the genre (sci-fi, romance, mystery, fantasy, children's, thriller, literary) if you can insert your life in a part of it, the story not only becomes more alive to the reader, but to you as well. You feel woven more into the words, and that emotional connection comes across to the reader.