Grunt Work

I’ve heard others say I should tailor my writing to fit a chosen market. In other words, write to fit the magazine in which you’d like to publish. Maybe I’m just a rebel, but I’ve always done it the other way ‘round—write first, match to a market after. ‘Course, that might explain why I’m not published yet.

But I don’t want to write a cookie-cutter piece. I want to write from my heart, from my mind, from my experience, from whatever moves me, and I simply can’t imagine that stories written in such a “backward” order are doomed, just because I didn’t force-fit them into a predetermined mold. I have faith there are plenty of readers out there who will find my stories moving, inspiring, funny, accessible, or what have you. Thus there must be a suitable market for each of my stories.

Somewhere.

The trick is to find it, and I’m still working on that. (When I figure it out, I’ll let you know.)

About a month ago, give or take a week, I finished two short stories in one day. After reading, simmering, revising, beta-readers (thanks Chris, Alyssa, Becky, Cathy, Laura and Kerry!), and final revisions, now I’m searching for a place to submit.

Enter grunt work.

First, I must classify my story. Is it non-fiction? Memoire? Literary? Genre fiction (in which case further classification is required: sci-fi, slipstream, fantasy, mystery, thriller, etc.)? This step forms the groundwork for all the rest. Without knowing what my story is, I can’t know where to submit.

Regardless of classification, there is a market to fit every story, and the second step of my grunt work is to search the Internet to find these gems. I do this so often now that some names (Analog, Masters Review, Carve, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Ploughshares, and others) are familiar to me, and I know (more or less) what they publish. Others I have to look up every time. On the upside, you benefit from my research since I post links I’ve found here on my site.

But simply identifying each publication’s style isn’t enough. Step three is to read examples from each magazine or webzine, so that I can see what the editors like – i.e., what they’ve selected from the slush pile as print-worthy. It’s only then I can see whether my story might fit well within its pages.

If I think a magazine is a good fit, I move on to step four: scrutinizing the magazine’s submission guidelines. And I read them hard. Even if I’ve read them before, I scan them again. Guidelines change all the time to take into account new scenarios or situations. Also, the guidelines will tell me whether or not the magazine is open to unsolicited submissions. Sometimes, these publications get overwhelmed with material to the point that they close the window to allow their staff to catch up. (Writers are legion; potential markets seem few by comparison.)

If the fit is good, and if I want my piece to appear in their pages or on their site, and if they are open to submissions, I move on to step five: prepare a submission document that includes whatever they’ve asked for, double-check it for accuracy and compliance, then submit it either via e-mail, U.S. Postal Service mail, or whatever online submission system the publication uses.

Grunt work is not quick, nor is it something I can do mindlessly. The publishers aren’t looking for reasons to write off my submissions. Quite the contrary! They want great stories. But because there are so many of us, and because they receive such a large number of submissions, they can afford to be choosy. I try not to make it easy for them to say no.

Still, with all that said, they have somehow managed to keep saying “no.” (sigh) I try not to get discouraged. It’s just a matter of timing and finding the right fit. Believe me, when I figure it out, you’ll all hear me cry “Eureka!” no matter where you are. In the meantime, I make it a learning experience. I read every online magazine I can find (well, okay, I’ve done the best I can; not all have free samples online, and I can’t afford to subscribe every one or even buy a sample—some of which cost $10 per issue!), and with every story I read, my writing improves. I note little turns of phrase, how a writer might use a relatively common verb in an uncommon way to really paint a clear picture of what’s happening, that sort of thing. It all contributes to the growing knowledge base. Like I said before, none of it is wasted.

In the meantime, I’m preparing to start my next story. Stay tuned; I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

Myst III, The Book of D’Ni

By Rand Miller and David Wingrove
Hyperion Books. © 1998
ISBN: 978-0786889426
Mass Market Paperback, 544 pages

Seventy years after the fall of D’Ni, Atrus and Catherine return with a team of enthusiastic assistants, intent on rebuilding. The devastation is overwhelming, unimaginable. The team hardly knows where to start. But Atrus feels certain some D’Ni could have escaped to other Ages. Their first task is to find them and bring them home.

The search begins with Books. Find and examine all that remain, even ancient texts so old their Maintainer’s Guild seals are faded almost into obscurity. Those survivors they find are reunited with their people and their fallen city, and the task of rebuilding begins even as the testing of Books continues.

But when a structural support in one of the buildings is deemed too damaged to repair and the floor is broken away, the survivors discover a crypt unknown to even the oldest D’Ni among them. Inside are Books more ancient than any even imagined, vaults sealed with the hardest of D’Ni stone, and a mysterious temptation Atrus cannot resist.

The Book of D’Ni is the third book in the Myst trilogy, and concludes the tale of young Atrus, who starts out Book I as a boy. Not every loose end is neatly tied, but then some things are better left to the reader’s imagination. Miller and Wingrove do a great job here in setting a scene, describing Terahnee, one of the new Ages. Beautiful and lush and prosperous, it sounds like paradise. I could see the buildings and gardens and waterways as I read. Characterizations also work here, though maybe not quite as well as in the Book of Ti’ana; while there are a number of characters, I had a little trouble picturing or feeling some of them, even though they appear numerous times in the story. Atrus seems, at times, a bit too good, too nice, too moral, but I think he represents an ideal. The antagonists in this story are somewhat stereotypical. They are also many; take one down and another takes his place. But I believe they too are symbols, exemplifying that which we ought to reject.

Of particular note is the lack of many truly strong female characters. If there is any serious flaw in the Myst books, this is it. Catherine and Ti’Ana both fill these shoes, but the writers didn’t take their roles far enough. Society in D’Ni falls back on male-only guilds and male heads of households. I suspect no malice in the writers’ lack therein; rather, I expect it was more a product of the times. Remember, these were written 20 or more years ago.

All that said, I still got lost in this book. It’s difficult to say much about it without spoiling the twist. Just as in the first two of the series, the authors weave a tale around ethics and compassion that could just as easily fit our own society, even almost twenty years later. I don’t think any reader will be able to miss these larger-than-life themes, even in a casual pass. The Book of D’Ni—indeed, the whole trilogy—is almost like a fairy-tale, a moral lesson on ethical behavior. Personally, I enjoyed it.

As I said with the other books, this series was written specifically to the fan base of the wildly popular computer games Myst (released 1993), Riven (1997), Exile (2001), Revelation (2004), and End of Ages (2005). If you played any or all of these games, but haven’t yet read the books, you’re missing out.

Yet you can enjoy the books without having played the games. Hyperion offers the entire trilogy in one volume, The Myst Reader, which is easily found online. If you enjoy fantasy, or a well-told tale, it’s an enjoyable, inspiring adventure.

Planting Seeds

Years ago, I worked in retail and stood on my feet all day. Now that my day job involves sitting, and my “night job” (writing) also involves sitting, I’m getting sludgy around the middle. Walking outside is more fun than the cardio equipment at the gym, but weather gods don’t always cooperate with my  schedule. Hence, I’m shopping for a treadmill.

I expected my Saturday mall excursion to be fairly point-and-click: go to the store, try out a few different models, bring one home. But that isn’t what happened. Of the two shops we visited, neither had the version we wanted in stock, and we came home empty-handed. (sigh)

But wait. The trip was not wasted.

While at one of the department stores, we met a man named Freddy. He’s originally from Rwanda, but during the awful revolution there, his family fled the Hutu’s genocide against the Tutsi people. Freddy, a Tutsi, grew up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and, at age 22, emigrated to Southern California to complete his schooling. He’s been in the U.S. ever since.

He told us how he taught himself English (through music videos and the BBC broadcasts) and how, when he first came here, an African American male spoke to him using common (at the time) cultural slang; Freddy turned the words over and around in his head, comparing them to his limited English vocabulary and finally, clueless as to what the man meant, nodded and smiled.

His recount made me chuckle. I’ve had similar experiences where English-speaking people used unfamiliar dialects to say things for which I had no frame of reference. Their meaning was lost on me, thus the effort to communicate failed, sort of like when I first went to the Midwest from the Deep South. Friends told me later that year that my Southern drawl was so thick they thought I was faking it.

Isn’t that like writing? Whether I am penning a tale to a young audience, a cultural group, a casual reader, or a group of intellectuals, I need to speak the appropriate language—including slang, terminology, similes, etc.—or the point of my story is lost. In part, that’s what agents and workshop facilitators mean when they say we need to target our stories to our intended markets. But it isn’t only what we say; it’s also how we say it. If I’m going for a gritty style, I don’t want to “pretty up” the narrative. If my protagonist is a street person, I don’t want them to use perfect grammar and diction. Conversely, if my character is a university professor, they should not use words like “ain’t” or “irregardless.”

But my conversation with Freddy gave me more than just an analogy for effective communication.

During our conversation, I listened more than I talked. Freddy’s many experiences offered a rich source of fodder for story ideas. He’s a tall man—maybe 6’2” or so—with dark, dark skin, long fingers and a contagious smile. He’s also quite lean, which he said is typical for his people. He has seen a lot of life, the good and the bad, and has come out on this side of his history with grace and balance. The same can’t be said for everyone who escaped such violence. We spoke for maybe 45 minutes and even though he told me a great deal in a short time, a whole lifetime of his experiences are now left to my imagination. What sorts of thoughts and fears and feelings might young Freddy have felt when his family was on the run? What was it like to go to not just one new country, but two, where he knew little about the language and customs? What sorts of political leanings would such a life provoke in him? What did he lose that he wishes he’d kept? What did he pick up that he wishes he’d left behind?

The possibilities are endless. Who knows? Maybe Freddy will turn up in one of my future tales.

My point is this: All sorts of encounters can feed my stories. Sometimes I have to turn an experience around a bit in the light of retrospection so I can see it better, or chew on it a while to get to the juice (you know what I mean), but I can find a story seed or a relevant connection to my passion for writing in almost anything.

I’ll be thinking on Freddy’s stories in the weeks to come. Some of what he told us raised my hair on end (I know, scary, right?). Other bits I found touching, or inspiriing. But a connection was made between two human beings, and whether or not I ever see Freddy again, I’ll remember our meeting for a long time.

I went to the mall for a treadmill. I came home germinating new seeds for thought. Nothing is ever wasted.

Thanks, Freddy.

Myst II: The Book of Ti’Ana

by Rand Miller and David Wingrove
Hyperion Books. ©1996
ISBN: 978-0786889204
Mass Market Paperback, 592 pages.

Anna lives with her father, conducting geological surveys in the desert. When his death leaves her alone, Anna sets off for the nearest town, but decides to make one last exploration of tunnels in the extinct volcano, discovered by her father just days before his death.

Deep beneath the surface of the caldera, the civilization of D’ni has thrived for thousands upon thousands of years. At the moment, its citizens once again engage in a long-standing debate: whether or not to venture to the surface and possibly make contact with its inhabitants. One faction says yes; as long as we’re cautious, we ought to know what other lifeforms inhabit our world. The other says no; in a society as rich with tradition and as steeped in study and honor as the D’ni, what could surface dwellers have to offer? Surely they would be little more than animals, not burdened with higher reasoning or any sort of intelligence.

When Anna gets lost in her exploration of the tunnels, two worlds collide. Anna’s encounter with the D’ni guardians set off a chain of events that shakes the ancient civilization to its very foundations.

The Book of Ti’Ana is the second volume in a trilogy that covers the story of the D’ni, a subterranean race of builders, excavators, scientists and artisans who also happen to hold the amazing talent of Writing, that is, the art and science of writing Books that link to strange and fascinating Ages, worlds where anything can—and sometimes does—happen. In the Book of Atrus, we saw the city of D’ni after its great Fall, with buildings abandoned and collapsed, no living residents remaining. Here, we see it thriving in the last years of its prime. Great guildhouses and homes cling to the walls of a cavern miles wide and so tall one cannot see the ceiling. As in The Book of Atrus, the writers give us vivid and colorful descriptions of Ages both beautiful and horrific. The main setting, the great underground city of D’ni, is as complex and detailed as you might expect in any major fantasy novel. Social conventions and traditions are a bit dated (remember when this was published), but believably told.

Characterizations are well-done, though there are a great many more characters in this story than there were in the first book, with a complex web of interactions between them. Neither Atrius nor Anna (later Ti’Ana), the protagonists, are perfect, which I liked. Nor is the antagonist purely evil. In fact, it isn’t clear in the beginning just who the antagonist will be; unless you read the first book (The Book of Atrus), you might not know him at first glance. But even those who know his name may be fooled in the beginning, for his character starts out good and develops through time and bitterness into a formidable enemy. I found the twist of this character’s nature entirely believable.

The Book of Ti’Ana could easily be read first, before The Book of Atrus, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Even though it’s backstory, I agree with the authors’ decision to place this second in the trilogy. Just as with part one, this is a good story on many levels. The Book of Ti’Ana is a fantasy about the conflict between exclusivity and inclusivity, between tradition and evolution, where hostility and suspicion holds the power to destroy it all, for both sides. It’s also a tale that is relevant to our own world, our own time, for the very same reasons. The inhabitants of D’ni face the same sorts of questions we do: whether inalienable rights extend to all or only a privileged few, whether purity of blood is essential to one’s relevance in society, and whether someone who is not “like us” deserves compassion and fair treatment.

As I said of The Book of Atrus, The Book of Ti’Ana is probably not up to the most discriminating standards where fiction-writing is concerned. Nevertheless, it was easy to lose myself in the story. I found myself rooting for Ti’Ana and Atrius throughout, sharing their joys and sorrows from beginning to end.

The Myst trilogy, of which this is the second volume, was written specifically to the fan base of the wildly popular computer games Myst (released 1993), Riven (1997), Exile (2001), Revelation (2004), and End of Ages (2005). If you played any or all of these games, but haven’t yet read the books, you’re missing out. Still, even if you didn’t play the computer games, give them a try. The Myst trilogy is recommended fantasy for anyone who enjoys a good tale well-told.

 

Myst I: The Book of Atrus

by Rand Miller, Robyn Miller and David Wingrove
Hyperion Books. ©1995
ISBN: 978-0786881888
Mass Market Paperback, 422 pages.

Anna is the only person young Atrus has ever known. His mother died in childbirth. His father, Gehn, abandoned Atrus immediately after, leaving him to his grandmother to raise or bury. Gehn didn’t really care which. Anna chooses the former, making a home with her grandson in a dormant volcano in the midst of the desert. Together they tease a garden from the reluctant earth, ration their precious water, and scavenge the surrounding area for anything they might sell to traders in exchange for salt, fabric, other necessities.

Through Anna’s lessons, Atrus learns what it takes to survive, even thrive. Her devotion seeds and tends his love and loyalty. Her stories hint at a past too fanciful to be real. Together, they eke a happy existence in the barren wasteland. Atrus begins to believe it will always be this way.

In his fourteenth year, his father returns, and Atrus’s world flips upside down. Now he must leave the desert, the only home he’s ever known, and his beloved grandmother for an unknown future with a strange, distant man. When Gehn leads Atrus up the face of the volcano and deep into its heart, Atrus begins to realize that his grandmother’s tales were true, that his own history is far more fantastic than he ever could have imagined.

The Book of Atrus is the first volume in a trilogy that covers the story of the D’ni, a subterranean race of builders, excavators, scientists and artisans who also happen to hold the amazing talent of Writing, that is, the art and science of writing Books that link to strange and fascinating Ages, worlds where anything can—and sometimes does—happen. Most fantasy writers in our own world create one, two, maybe three worlds at most in any given story. In The Book of Atrus, the Millers, together with Wingrove, have created a whole plethora of them. From the very beginning, their descriptions of Anna and Atrus’s home, the desert around them, and Atrus’s entire journey through the underground with Gehn, not to mention the various Ages, painted a clear and inviting picture that made me want to explore the D’ni tunnels for myself.

Characterizations also evoked emotions in me. I fell in love with Anna and Atrus immediately, and despised Gehn from the start. After Gehn’s reappearance, we don’t see much of Anna; I missed her and sympathized with her as I watched Atrus grow up without her guidance. Atrus does develop as a character, even if somewhat predictably. Gehn grows more despicable with the turning of every page. Although I could somewhat predict the ending, it was no less enjoyable because… Well. I can’t tell you that, now can I?

This is a story of Atrus’s coming of age, how he grows to manhood in the care of his father. But it’s also more than that. It’s a provocative tale of ethics and morality, and the ever-present struggle between personal gain and compassion for others, one which holds some relevance to events unfolding in our own world, in our own time. More than once I found myself comparing events in this tale to contemporary headlines, political and social sagas playing out all around me even as I read.

The Book of Atrus is probably not up to the most discriminating standards where fiction-writing is concerned. As I read, I heard lessons from my own editor and experienced writers echoing in my head (“never do this!”). Nonetheless, such “shortcomings” did not diminish my enjoyment of the tale one whit. I found The Book of Atrus to be an enjoyable adventure set in a visual world with provocative ethical dilemmas.

One thing to keep in mind as you read is that the Myst trilogy was written to the fan base of the wildly popular computer games Myst (released 1993), Riven (1997), Exile (2001), Revelation (2004), and End of Ages (2005). The Book of Atrus describes events that lead up to the first game. If you played any or all of these games, but haven’t yet read the books, you’re missing out. If you haven’t played, there is still plenty to recommend about this novel, though I suspect reading it may make you curious about the game, which I can’t recommend enough.

The Miller brothers and Mr. Wingrove have done a great job bringing the Myst universe to life in these pages. If you like fantasy that takes you to another world, The Myst trilogy is for you. Start here, with The Book of Atrus.

The Joy of the New

I just finished a new story, one unlike any other I’ve written thus far. I can’t explain the feeling, the excitement, the sense of teetering between promise and trepidation at hopes of getting it in print. If you write, you know it. If you don’t, no words will suffice.

The characters in my tales are always real to me. I could describe to you their physical appearance, their emotional makeup, their mindset. I could predict what they might do in almost any situation. Usually. Sometimes they surprise me.

The same with the settings. I see the surroundings. Smell the fragrances or aromas or stench. Hear the sounds and noises and voices and laughter. Feel the heat or the cold or the wind or the rain. On occasion, it’s at least in part because I’ve been to a similar place. Not always, though. Can’t say I’ve ever been to another planet. Not yet, anyway.

Whether I love them or despise them, the characters and their settings take over a large portion of my thoughts when I’m writing them. Earlier today, Bobby asked if I wanted cheese on my burger. It took me a full minute to answer. I had to come back from the cloud forest to do so. It’s often hard to leave the characters and settings behind! I read once that Rowling said she was sad when Harry Potter’s story was finished. It felt like she was leaving behind a family. I know a tiny taste of that. I often think, “Damn. What next?”

It’s sometimes a few days before I can really pull my head totally out of what I just finished, so there’s usually no question about moving immediately to something else. In a way, it’s like my weekend. I have a couple of days to do all the stuff I should have done but didn’t while I was embedded in another world. I’ve learned to take advantage of that time.

For this story, I’ll set it aside like I did the last one. A few weeks from now, I’ll pull it out, read it again, tweak it and start looking for a publisher.

But now, in this moment, I am basking. Thoughts of my characters and their story still swirl in my head. It’s hard not to keep picking away at the draft. I just have to distract myself with other tasks.

Anyway, when you read this, celebrate with me. Have a beer, or a glass of wine, or a really good brownie. Whatever your favorite treat. Whether or not it ever gets published, it’s a completed draft. That is never a bad thing.

{LATER: Okay, it’s a little over two weeks since I actually penned this post. As I said, I’d only just finished the story referenced above (which is still awaiting the perfect title, but which am tentatively calling “Flight of Fancy”). As you’ll note, I said it’s usually a few days before I can move on to another project. Which just goes to prove there’s an exception to every rule. Not an hour after I finished the draft of this blog post, another story exploded fully developed in my head. I sat back down at the computer and penned it all in a few hours. (That one is still awaiting its re-read, too, and is tentatively called “A Murder of Crows.”)

I’ll keep you posted on how they do in queries.}

Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality

by Barbara Bradley Hagerty.
Riverhead, © 2009
ISBN 978-1594484629
Paperback, 336 pages. From $14.97

Lifelong Christian Science devotee Barbara Bradley Hagerty, inspired by a spiritual encounter she could not explain, spent years exploring the nature of God. Fingerprints documents her journey through the labyrinth of stories from people who’ve experienced a transcendent connection with something Other that changed them forever, and Hagerty’s quest to learn whether there is hard, documented science to explain these experiences. Through more than a decade of interviews with scientists, medical practitioners, and neurotheologians, she sought answers to questions like “Is spiritual experience real?” and “Is there a reality outside this one?” and “What do people really see during near-death or other out-of-the-body experiences?” From the MRI chamber to the all-night peyote ceremony, Hagerty followed every available lead, chased every clue, with surprising—and sometimes astounding–results. Along the way, she met extraordinary people with remarkable tales that cast credible doubts on the lines between “real” and “imaginary.”

Hagerty starts out as a Christian Scientist. Throughout the book, she compares her new findings to the belief system that has supported her throughout her lifetime. By the end of the book, she admits to having lost some of her long-held assumptions, but overall her research only informs what she believed all along. The big difference is that she no longer believes her own religion is the only right, true faith. She has come to understand that, as she says in the book, faith is like a spoked wheel. God is the hub. All spokes lead to God. It doesn’t matter which one you choose. And—she asserts this clearly—it is a choice. Science can’t prove there is a Divine, any more than they can prove there is not. The choice is up to us how we interpret these experiences, and how we allow them to inform our lives.

Now let me tell you right up front that this is not the first time I’ve read Fingerprints. Still, as a deeply spiritual woman with personal numinous experience, I am always inspired by this book. Hagerty asks hard questions and presents intriguing scientific data from documented experiments. She reminds me of mystical Truths I already knew but had forgotten in the day-to-day business of life. Each time I read it, I find myself reevaluating my own assumptions, adjusting my beliefs to fit new knowledge, and remembering that I am a part of, not apart from, the Whole. For me, it is a refresher course that never seems to disappoint.

Hagerty’s book will suit anyone who ever asked the Big Questions, anyone who ever had a mystical experience, or anyone who seeks connection with something beyond All This. Whether you maintain a particular religious faith, or consider yourself a Seeker, Fingerprints offers deep and satisfying food for thought.

Setting the Scene to Write

I have a DJ in my head. For some reason, that sucker likes to torment me by playing the same melody fragment of the same song over and over and over for days (or weeks) without pause. Right now, for example, it’s playing a very old Bette Midler tune from her burlesque days. (“If you’re cracking up from having lack of shacking up…”) The only thing that breaks it off is to feed the DJ a new song, or to play different music, or to watch television, anything to give it some new musical phrase or line of lyric. Unfortunately, as a partially deaf music-lover, I don’t always know the words to the songs, so I make them up as I go. It doesn’t always appease the DJ to sing along if I’m not a fully informed participant.

So a quiet room is sometimes tantamount to tortuous distraction when I write, for the DJ Never. Shuts. Up. I usually listen to a-lyrical (is that a word?) music—psyambient, or New Age, or classical. Favorites include anything by the Peaking Goddess Collective, Entheogenic, Andreas Vollenweider, Carbon Based Lifeforms, or even mixes by FrancoFunghi and other similar real-life DJs. Sometimes, I listen to pieces from a sound-effect generator (mynoise.net), which as a subscriber, I can mix together to create a unique background.

I usually write in my own space at home, but it’s not unheard of to find me at a busy café, where the background buzz of dozens of simultaneous conversations fill the DJ’s need for sound. Even the main room at a library (which is not as quiet as you might think) can fit this bill. I’ve written at the local botanical gardens, or on the kitchen table at work (after hours, boss! I swear!), or on my balcony at home where the birds and squirrels and neighbors and bugs (get away, spider!) take the DJ’s place.

Other surroundings don’t count so much as sound, for me. As long as I can see what I’m doing, I don’t need much beyond a flat space for my computer and a semi-comfortable seat for my…well, you know. The Smudginator (see “What the Heck is a Smudge?” on the “About Me” page), however, doesn’t like it when I write. The keyboard is in direct competition with him for my attention, so wherever I write at home must be specifically equipped to allow ease of opportunity for close personal contact between his ears and my fingers whenever he so desires. If I ignore him too long, he climbs on my leg and “pats” me with his paw while insistently vocalizing his demands. (This is precisely how I learned that the library or a café or even the gardens are a workable substitute for my own apartment.)

What about you? Tell me about your writing space, or if you aren’t a writer, where do you go to create your songs/music/jewelry/paintings/art/etc.?

Fueling the Fire

My friend William recently asked me to explain what I meant by “God” in five minutes or less. After I finished laughing, I said I was pretty sure no one in this reality could explain or describe God at all, much less in five minutes. However, to me, God is that quintessential Other, who I believe is the basis, the energy, the essence of All That Is. Every galaxy, every planet, every sentient, every living thing, every atom, every quantum particle, every everything is made from and filled by and entangled with this Vital Construct. As such, we are all One, and the only thing that isolates us one from the other is this physical realm, these physical bodies. It also means we are individuals, unique unto ourselves, only so long as we are “separate.” Before our entry here, and after we leave, I believe we are part of that larger Whole.

To take this further, if God is Divine, and if the energy and substance that is God suffuses us all, that means we are all (at least in part) Divine. I’ve heard religious people say that they are the children of God, or that they have God in their hearts, or that we are made of star stuff. All these statements, worded to fit their culture of origin, resonate with my own understanding of Divine Nature.

Granted, this is my spirituality in a nutshell. But it summarizes what I’ve believed for years now. Needless to say, time and experience tweaks and nuances my approach to God, but all of it contributes to my Weltanschauung. It’s a very big part of who I am.

I’ve used the word “God” here, but I could as easily have used Divine, or Universe, or The Is, or Allah, or G_D. I wear no religious label—not Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Bahai, UU, Wiccan, Druid, or any other—but it doesn’t matter. My point is that my writing is inextricably connected to my life as a human being. I can’t—don’t want to—separate them, for without those experiences or feelings or beliefs that make up my life, what would I write about?

Thus my system of beliefs is part of my writing. I’m not sure I could pen anything—story, novel, poem–without including it in some way, whether in blatant form or not. It certainly informed my manuscript, The Founders Seed, where it forms the kernels of faith for an alien race. On occasion, real-life twists of spiritual insight show up in my story plots. For example, in my short non-fiction story Dancing Man, the protagonist (me) has forgotten these “Truths” and is reminded after an eye-opening encounter with a homeless person.

That’s not to say that every character in my stories reflects those beliefs; certainly they don’t. In The Founders Seed, the antagonist believes personal power or greed will fill his empty soul. In Last Call, the protagonist works through a life-altering crisis without any belief in the Divine, and relies on Pragmatic philosophy to support her decisions.

Sometimes, when I hear God’s whispers (or, sometimes, her shouts—I’m not always listening as closely as I should), the lessons I learn show up in my tales, like Seed or Dancing Man or Switch. In these instances, writing helps me work out the kinks in the message, and it is through this process that the story unfolds. I even keep a blank, lined book with me always where I can jot down story ideas that pop into my head. Most of these stories have yet to see physical form, but they are there, waiting, a great many inspired by these flashes of insight.

Does your religion/faith/spirituality inform your writing? If so, how?

The Target

by David Baldacci
Grand Central Publishing
Hachette Book Group, © 2014
ISBN 978-1-4555-2123-4
Mass Market Paperback, 432 pages, $10.00

When faced with the opportunity of a lifetime—the chance to take down a global threat—U.S. President Cassion weighs the risks and reluctantly gives the order. The mission must succeed. Failure means certain retaliation, probable impeachment, and possible world war. Only five people know the deal: the President, the CIA director, the national security advisor, and the CIA’s two top agents, WILL ROBIE and JESSICA REEL. Operation commencement sets inexorable wheels in motion for everyone involved, especially when all does not go as planned.

On the other side of the world, North Korea plots against a traitor for scheming with the evil West, and imprisons his family in a notorious camp from which few ever escape. But “impossible” isn’t in the U.S. vocabulary, and when Cassion sends Robie and Reel to liberate the prisoners, North Korea must retaliate to save face. In the aftermath, their best agent conspires with well-placed contacts in the U.S. This time, the stakes are higher than ever, and none of them expect to come out of it alive.

David Baldacci spins a good thriller. Even with numerous characters, the reader knows they’ll all tie together somehow. Part of the fun in this kind of read is trying to figure out the connections before they’re made clear. It’s a given that intrigue and personal drama each play their own role, almost becoming characters in their own right. When a reader picks up a thriller, they have certain expectations of the plot and every character. Robie and Reel were predictable good guys. I knew what they’d do in almost every scene, though they did surprise me from time to time. On the other hand, I admit to being most captivated by the antagonist, CHUNG-CHA, and found myself trying to see the world through her eyes, impossible though that would be.

I’m not certain if it’s a concrete part of his style, or whether this novel was different, but The Target is mostly narrated from an almost omnicscient perspective. Between that and his prominent use of passive verbs, I found it a little more difficult to connect with the characters. Of course, as an up-and-coming writer, this got my attention, since books and classes on the craft of writing always say this is unwise. Now I see why. Still, Baldacci’s long list of titles, many of which became best sellers, speaks to his storytelling ability. Clearly, many love his novels. This was my first Baldacci experience, so my comments here are based on a narrow range of his work, and on what my teachers say. (Of course, they also say once you’re a bestselling author, you can break all the “rules” you want.)

That small detail aside, I enjoyed this book enough that I’ll likely read other Baldacci novels. If you’re looking for an entertaining read, The Target might be for you.